Professor Chen Jie explains the Spratly triangle

–Note: apologies to email subscribers for the incomplete draft sent out just now. I didn’t realise the Iphone app could interpret an errant finger swipe as an instruction to “publish now”. I will hopefully finish it off today after i’ve spoken to some more friends.–

In the dispute over the Spratly Islands, a China-Vietnam-Philippines triangle of active claimants has taken shape, with external great powers the US, India, Russia and perhaps even Japan lurking, anxious about possible trouble and eager to seize any strategic opportunity. The interview translated here, recorded in November 2011 following several months of intense diplomatic maneuverings, offers an excellent recap of how we arrived at the more direct competition of 2012, as well as touching on the issues raised in the previous post.

The three sections, indicated by the host’s questions in bold, canvass:

  1. Vietnam’s diplomatic triple-dealings with China, India and the Philippines in October 2011;
  2. The connections between great-power politics and Vietnamese ruling-party politics; and
  3. The difference between the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s approaches.

The interview was broadcast by the multilingual Australian SBS Radio with with Jie Chen 陈杰, Professor of International Relations at the University of Western Australia. Professor Chen is an expert on Southeast Asian and Chinese foreign policy who is supervising my PhD project.

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Would China and Vietnam want a fight?

Bill Bishop (@niubi) raised an important point in yesterday’s Sinocism:

economic problems in china, economic problems in vietnam. a skirmish in the south china sea might be a distraction and an economic fillip for both?

This is worth thinking through carefully, and i would be most obliged if readers could pick out the holes in my logic and knowledge.

My propositions are

  1. that China could benefit from such a fight, though it might be too afraid of US opportunism to grasp them; and
  2. even if China was indeed up for a fight, it would take both of them to tango, and Vietnam wouldn’t be keen.

China would be the likely beneficiary of a live-fire skirmish involving the PLAN, for under that pretext China could evict Vietnam from one or more islands of its choosing. That would be the first time the People’s Republic had ever controlled an island in the Spratly Archipelago.

Possession of a single island in the Spratlys would hugely enhance the position of the People’s Republic strategically, logistically, and legally. What is more, i dare say it might be viewed as a glorious success by some people in China.

“Retrieving” 收复 a Spratly island by evicting an opponent is perhaps the one action that could actually impress the Chinese public and bolster the party’s “nationalist legitimacy” at home.

Despite possessing a much better navy and air force than the Philippines, i think Vietnam would be a more appealing target for an island “retrieval” simply because there would be no issue of the US becoming involved via treaty obligation. This is also reflected in the fact that Vietnam is the only country the PRC has attacked in the South China Sea.

The best opportunity for the PRC to make a move like this would be a clear-cut instance of Vietnamese aggression. A flagrant attack a PLA Navy boat by Vietnamese fishermen might constitute a justfiable rationale for an island battle. If multiple attacks happened (or could somehow be made to happen) then China could instruct its military to go looking for the attackers on one or more of the Vietnamese-controlled Spratly Islands.

Would America step in to prevent China from gaining such prime a foothold as a Spratly Island? I think not, as long as China could convince the world that Vietnam had started the incident.

On the other hand, even if Vietnam were to oblige by recklessly attacking the PLA Navy, the risk for China would be that the US could use the ensuing PLA retaliation as an opportunity to assert itself in the region, and perhaps even to bring the PLA’s development “under control”. From my hypothetical Chinese military perspective, the US could conceivably unleash its considerable (though much-degraded by Saddam’s WMDs) narrative-building powers to convince the world that China was to blame for any clash — even, or perhaps especially, a clash brought about by Vietnam, under US encouragement.

So while China would stand to gain a great deal from a skirmish, it could still be deterred by its own belief in the US’s evil intentions and opportunism.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has its good friend Russia increasingly tangled up with its own fortunes through a range of energy development partnerships (“such as Vietsovpetro, Rusvietpetro, Gazpromviet and Vietgazprom”), and Russia may soon be present in Cam Ranh Bay, which Vietnam has offered as a the site of a Russian supply and maintenance base.

Xinhua’s Moscow-datelined report from August 27, ‘Vietnam declines to give Russia exclusive rights to naval base‘ (my emphasis) appears to be clutching at straws trying to find a positive angle for China; President Truong Tan Sang’s 5-day visit to Russia last month appears to have been a riproaring success. The reason Russia will not have exclusive rights, is of course that Vietnam has invited the US military to use Cam Ranh Bay too.

The Chinese media have frequently accused the US of trying to embolden China’s co-claimants into making provocations. From Hillary’s famous declaration of national interest, to (non-combat) military exercises in July 2011, to Leon Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay in June this year, the US has definitely been pushing things forward with Vietnam too.

In the event of a skirmish with China, however, Vietnam still couldn’t count on support from either the US or Russia, both of which continue to have enormous national interests in maintaining peace with the People’s Republic.

When it comes to the South China Sea, Vietnam is the only country that has ever actually tried to fight with the PRC there — and that did not end well (see video at top). Yet Vietnam’s position in the Spratlys remains very favourable compared to the People’s Republic’s, occupying at least six islands and more than twenty reefs and atolls, and an estimated 2,000 troops posted as of 2002. Why would they risk this, with possession is (probably) nine-tenths of the law?

To me, this all points to Vietnam being determined to avoid serious escalations, even as the US bolsters its position in the region.