As China and Vietnam enter the second week of
their tense naval standoff in the South China Sea, three questions loom large:
What is China trying to achieve, could this turn into a shooting war between
the two historical enemies, and what does this all mean for the U.S. pivot to
The short answers: China watchers are
puzzled by Beijing's aggressive behavior, which seems both a departure from its
previous approach to regional relations and potentially counterproductive; no
guns have yet been drawn, but this could quickly turn violent; and U.S. desire
to maintain influence in the region could hinge on how it handles a dispute
between two communist countries -- and on whether neighboring nations believe
Washington is willing to go to the mat to stand up to a rising China.
China's dispatch of a huge,
billion-dollar offshore oil rig to waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi
sparked the biggest conflict in years between the two countries. Over the
weekend, Vietnamese officials said, Chinese ships sent to escort the oil rig rammed and fired water cannons
at Vietnamese coast guard vessels sent to investigate. Tensions remain at a
fever pitch, with Chinese officials claiming Friday, May 9, that Vietnamese ships and
frogmen are interfering with the oil rig's operations, though no further naval
clashes have been confirmed.
The clash, the most serious since a similar
showdown between China and Vietnam in 2007, has zoomed to the top of the agenda
for the summit this weekend of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
which in turn has infuriated Beijing. China doesn't want any international
groupings to discuss the maritime disputes, which it prefers to settle on a
The Philippines, which has its own fresh dispute
with China this week after Philippine Coast Guard officials arrested someone they said was an
illegal Chinese fisherman, will seek to put maritime
disputes at the heart of the ASEAN confab and seek progress on a code of
conduct that could give countries a peaceful way to resolve territorial disputes.
In response, Chinese state-controlled media attacked the Philippines for
trying to "instigate tension" in the region by promising to bring up maritime
disputes at the annual ASEAN summit.
The real bad guy, in Chinese eyes, isn't the
Philippines or Vietnam, however. Instead, Beijing says that the United States,
by pursuing its pivot to Asia, has emboldened countries in the region to take
an unnecessarily tougher and more provocative stance toward China than they had
in recent years.
"It must be pointed out that the
recent series of irresponsible and wrong comments from the United States, which
neglect the facts about the relevant waters, have encouraged certain countries'
dangerous and provocative behavior," a Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokeswoman said at a regular briefing Friday, Reuters reported.
China was responding to tough talk from the
U.S. State Department in the wake of news that the two countries had actually
clashed over the oil rig's deployment. On Wednesday, State Department spokesperson
Jen Psaki stated that China's aggressive approach to advancing its claims over a
broad stretch of the South China Sea "undermines peace and stability in
On Thursday, after Chinese officials alleged
that Vietnamese ships had attacked their vessels more than 170 times, Psaki reiterated that the United States sees China
as the bad actor in this particular drama. "We think it's the Chinese side that is
exhibiting provocative actions here," she said.
She repeated the U.S. position at a briefing
on Friday, saying that though the United States takes no position on the
sovereignty dispute "any time there are provocative or unhelpful
actions taken that put the maintenance of peace and stability at risk, I think
that's something that any country has the right to have concerns about."
For a nation that spent 30 years
reassuring neighbors that it sought a "peaceful rise" in both
economic and military power, China's bold move to dispatch an oil rig to waters
inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, and then defend it with about 80
coast guard and naval vessels, raises serious questions. Here's a good one with
which to start: Just what is China thinking?
"Something fundamental is taking place in
China's foreign-policy behavior," said David Lai, a China expert at the
Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. "The Chinese are
changing from a 'low profile, avoid showdowns' approach to one that is more
Lai has spent years teaching U.S. defense
officials to understand Chinese strategy through the board game of wei qi, also known
as Go in the West. He says China's dispatch of the oil rig to disputed waters,
which is hard to justify on commercial, oil-extraction grounds, makes more
sense if understood in terms of the stones, or pieces, that are strategically placed
on a wei qi board.
"When you put facts on the ground, it's
like you put a stone there, and that stone has impact. The game is all about
position-based power," he said, drawing parallels between the seemingly
immovable oil rig and Chinese designs in the South China Sea.
Other China experts chalk up Beijing's
aggressive behavior to concerns among the ruling Communist Party's senior
leadership that one of the main pillars of its legitimacy and popular support
-- the country's roaring economy -- could be wobbling amid signs of slowing
growth and a potentially devastating real estate bubble.
"Domestic political stability is probably
the single most important interest that the Chinese are pursuing with their
regional maritime strategy," said Peter Dutton, the head of the China
Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.
He sees parallels with the way that China
fanned the flames of nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment during a 2012
dispute over the Senkaku Islands. "It was an opportunity to create
domestic political space by dangling the bright, shiny object of nationalism
off to the side and changing the focus of the conversation," Dutton said.
The big question is whether the brinkmanship
around the oil rig is mere posturing or has the potential to turn into
something far more serious. There are a couple of reasons to worry: Vietnam,
unlike the Philippines and Japan, has no formal defense agreement with the
United States, which means Beijing doesn't have to worry about Washington being
obliged to ride to Hanoi's rescue. At the same time, Vietnam and China have
fought each other, on and off, for centuries.
More recently, Vietnam and China
fought a major land war in 1979; they clashed over Chinese occupation of the
Paracel Islands, where the rig is, in 1974; and they collided in a deadly
spat over disputed territories in the late 1980s that left scores of Vietnamese
And while U.S. President Barack Obama made a point of
reaffirming formal defense ties with Tokyo and Manila during his recent, four-country
Asian tour, Vietnam has no such agreement with the United States. Until
recently, in fact, many observers feared that U.S. defense obligations to Japan could suck the United States
into a conflict with China because those obligations extend to the disputed
Senkaku Islands claimed by both countries. Lately, however, China has made
moves to lower the tension with Japan over those islands with diplomatic
missions to Tokyo and fewer naval and air patrols of the disputed islands.
Could the naval skirmish between China and
Vietnam move beyond water cannons to live fire?
"I think so," said M. Taylor Fravel, an
expert on Asian maritime disputes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I'm not at all worried by shots being fired between China and the Philippines.
But the Vietnamese have a different set of capabilities and they have a
different history with China."
Given Vietnam's desire to keep China from
tapping what it sees as its national oil and gas wealth, and given the close
proximity of so many ships, the jostling could "conceivably escalate to
the use of armed force," Fravel said.
Dutton, meanwhile, says the combination of
Vietnam's vulnerability and China's apparent belief that its vital national
interests are at play in the oil dispute means that shots could soon be fired.
"It would seem to me that conflict is
something that we all have to consider as a very real possibility," he
How does this affect the United States? In
Japan, Obama went out of his way to stress that U.S. security guarantees extend
to the Senkaku Islands, perhaps to forestall the kind of ambiguity that led to
the 1950 invasion of South Korea, when U.S. officials intimated that Seoul was
not covered by the U.S. security blanket.
But in the South China Sea, the United States has no
defense accord or alliance with Vietnam, and it takes no position on which country actually owns the collection of islands in the Paracel chain, which form the
basis for China's insistence that its oil rig is operating lawfully. Washington
has simply stressed, as it has for years, that it wants to preserve freedom
of navigation in the area and that it urges states to use peaceful means to
resolve disputes. Notably, Tokyo and Washington backed the Philippines' decision to take China to
court over their islands dispute.
Still, just because Washington doesn't want to
become directly involved in the South China Sea doesn't mean it can avoid it.
"This is a real challenge for the United States. One of the
objectives in the region is to reassure allies, partners, and friends. And if
we don't get involved, then reassuring allies, partners, and friends is called
into question," Dutton of the Naval War College said.
Photo by Vietnam Coast Guard - AP