On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague repudiated much of China’s claims to the South China Sea, rejecting China’s historical claims based on the “Nine-Dash Line.” Beijing boycotted the proceedings and stated that it would not abide by the ruling.1 Many online nationalistic commentators quickly called for tough responses to what amounted to a legal humiliation to Beijing. Territorial sovereignty is a very sensitive issue in China, as the country lost many territorial possessions — including Hong Kong, Taiwan, parts of Xinjiang and Manchuria — during the Qing and Republican eras to European and Japanese invaders. Therefore, because of this “Century of Humiliation,” Chinese nationalists and policy makers see themselves as defending the historical territorial possessions of China against foreign powers, especially China’s geopolitical rivals.2
While the Philippines appear to be the most vocal opponent of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, it has not engaged in armed conflict with China. On the other hand, a much quieter but more assertive claimant in the South China Sea had fought two naval battles with China in 1974 and 1988 over their disputed maritime territories. In contrast to China, contemporary Vietnam prides itself on having repelled, over the centuries, numerous hostile foreign invaders, especially China. For example, Vietnamese today still pay their respects to the Truong sisters, who held back Han Chinese invaders for three years from 40 to 43 AD. The Truong sisters represented the first line of national heroes and heroines who repelled foreign invaders. Subsequently China ruled Northern Vietnam during the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and for another twenty years during the Ming Dynasty. In 1979, after spending about 30 years repelling French colonizers and American invaders, Vietnam and China fought a brief but brutal war that devastated much of northern Vietnam. Hence, the geopolitical threat of China looms large in contemporary Vietnamese nationalism.3
Sino-Vietnamese Conflict over the South China Sea
China in the minds of the Vietnamese is seen mainly as a hostile “other.” Although there was a short honeymoon period when they briefly cooperated under the Communist ideology to resist the French colonizers and American invaders, it is insignificant when compared to the longer period of Chinese hostility lasting from the Han Dynasty to the 1988 shootout over the Spratly Islands. Thus, the perception of China as an enemy among the Vietnamese could be much stronger than their negative perceptions of France, Japan, and the US. For example, following Japan’s surrender in 1945, when Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek was given the task of disarming Japanese troops in northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh — the founding father of modern Vietnam — replaced Chiang’s troops with French ones and stated that he “would rather smell French excrement for a few years more than Chinese excrement for another millennium.”4
In addition, although both the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Parties are supposed to share the same ideology, this ideological connection enjoys little support among the Vietnamese public today. For example, during the 2014 riot against China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig near the Paracel Islands, much of the public anger in Vietnam was actually directed against their government, especially its perceived weakness and lack of strong will in dealing with China.5 With their ideological connection no longer having a significant role in the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, the Vietnamese public’s perception of their country’s relationship with China mainly consists of a sense of collective security against the Chinese threat. The very existence of neighboring China as a malicious “enemy” enhances the Vietnamese people’s self-imagined national community. Therefore, in order to legitimate itself in the eyes of the public, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV’s) policy choices regarding the South China Sea dispute would likely be very limited, as making even small concessions to China would be perceived as a betrayal to the Vietnamese people, but firmly confronting the Chinese “enemy” could strengthen domestic support for the CPV. As a result, the Sino-Vietnamese relations are likely to continue to be overshadowed by hostility.
Armed conflict is very unlikely to occur, as it will cause considerable economic, humanitarian, and political disasters to both countries.
On the other side of the border, while the Chinese people’s perception of Vietnam is less hostile, the CPV’s likely choice of confronting China over the South China Sea and allying itself with China’s geopolitical rivals like the US and Japan could cause the Chinese public and policymakers to reciprocally see Vietnam as an enemy. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing saw Hanoi as an ally based on their socialist brotherhood against the French and the US, who were seeking to preserve the Western colonial hegemonic order in Asia. However, after the Soviet Union became Beijing’s largest geopolitical and ideological threat following the Sino-Soviet split, Vietnam chose to side with the Soviet Union against Beijing, eventually leading to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. Recently, Vietnam has openly sought US and Japanese assistance in the South China Sea dispute. Hence, after seeing Vietnam repeatedly siding with China’s geopolitical rivals, Chinese policymakers and the Chinese public would most likely see Vietnam as a rival in line with the US and Japan.
As mentioned earlier, given the fact that safeguarding territorial sovereignty after the “Century of Humiliation” is arguably the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) promise to the Chinese people,6 Beijing is unlikely to back down from confronting Hanoi as the latter embarks on an increasingly assertive position against China over the South China Sea. As a result, China and Vietnam could witness an increasing number of confrontations in the near future over their disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea.
War Remains Unlikely
While armed conflict may seem likely, there is no evidence suggesting that this is inevitable. On the contrary, this is very unlikely to occur, as it will cause considerable economic, humanitarian, and political disasters to both countries. In terms of economics, as of 2012, China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner with their bilateral trade reaching USD 36 billion, while trade between Vietnam and the US reached only USD 22 billion. Vietnam’s manufacturing sector is also heavily dependent on Chinese industrial inputs.7 Hence, despite the Vietnamese public seeing China as their enemy, Vietnam remains highly dependent on China for trade and investment. Thus, should the ongoing tensions over the South China Sea escalate, economic sanctions from China could hurt the Vietnamese economy, not to mention that the Chinese Navy could potentially blockade Vietnamese ports if an armed conflict breaks out.
In terms of military capabilities, although Vietnam has recently bought six improved Kilo-class conventional attack submarines, long-range supersonic and subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles, S-300 series long-range surface-to-air missiles, and Sukhoi-30 fighter jets from Russia,8 China arguably still possesses an absolute military advantage over Vietnam. Even if the Vietnamese navy and air force were to successfully sink dozens of Chinese naval vessels and shoot down Chinese fighter planes, the sheer size of the Chinese military — especially its short and medium-range ballistic missiles based in southern China — could cause the Vietnamese navy and air force to lose most of their best assets, airfields, and naval bases. Finally, if one draws historical parallels with their 1979 War, Hanoi simply cannot rule out the possibility that Beijing might launch another land invasion into northern Vietnam, which could result in an economic and humanitarian disaster. Thus, Vietnam clearly does not have much to gain from confronting Beijing militarily.
On the other hand, China also would have much to lose over a potential military conflict in the South China Sea. Although Vietnam is not a US treaty ally, an armed confrontation between China and Vietnam would most likely pit China against the US, Japan, and other important trading partners. As the West’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine demonstrate, countries that militarily challenge the post-Cold War US-led international order will not go unpunished. In this sense, should China take large-scale military actions against Vietnam, it could face multilateral sanctions from countries and regions — such as the US, Japan, and the EU — that have the most interest in upholding the current international order. However, given that the Chinese economy is much more diversified than that of Russia, sanctions are unlikely to have decisive effects on changing Beijing’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, given that China’s economy is still highly dependent on exports, foreign technology transfers, and international trade, economic isolation resulting from sanctions would likely slow down China’s economic growth and technological progress.
Additionally, should China confront Vietnam with military force, Vietnam could invite the US to return to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, just like how Vietnam offered the same to the Soviet Union following the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Cam Ranh Naval Base offers three advantages: geographical proximity to the disputed Paracel Islands and the Straits of Malacca; easily strengthened defenses with the help of hardening measures; and proximity to Ho Chi Minh City.9 Hence, similar to the presence of the Soviet Navy in the South China Sea and Cam Ranh Bay in the 1980s, the permanent presence of the US Navy at Cam Ranh would certainly limit China’s freedom of action in the South China Sea. Thus, in the long run, a war with Vietnam today could impose significant strategic costs on China, with Vietnam potentially joining and strengthening the US-led alliance in Asia. The Obama Administration’s recent lifting of the Cold War-era arms embargo on Vietnam — despite Vietnam’s poor human rights record10 — should serve as a reminder to Beijing that a US-Vietnam military alliance is not impossible.
As a result, although history and nationalism continue to fan the flames of conflict between Vietnam and China, a large-scale armed conflict remains unlikely. This is due to the fact that while Vietnam’s hard power is likely to remain inferior to that of China, China could also face incalculable economic, political, and geopolitical costs should it initiate such a conflict. Thus, due to their economic and strategic interests, neither Beijing nor Hanoi has any realistic interest in an armed confrontation over the South China Sea, unless the leaders of both countries decide that the resulting costs described above are endurable.
Both Vietnam and China have histories of victimhood at the hands of more powerful imperial and colonial powers. China is one of Vietnam’s most important “enemies” as a result of their history of conflict, while Vietnam is increasingly siding with the geopolitical rivals of China, including the US and Japan, due to their territorial disputes over the South China Sea. Therefore, conflict seems likely to occur again between Vietnam and China. However, given that Vietnam is likely to suffer both militarily and economically from an armed confrontation with China, it has little realistic interest in any conflict with China. For Hanoi, unilaterally challenging Beijing by military means over their disputed maritime territories could be an act of geopolitical and military suicide.
On the other hand, should China initiate such conflicts, it could face an international backlash including economic and political isolation, and strategic encirclement if Vietnam decides to allow other great powers — especially superpower like the US — to permanently station naval units at Cam Ranh Bay. The US’ and the EU’s reactions to Russia’s annexation of Crimea could also serve as a reminder to policymakers in Beijing that great powers resolving disputes with small and medium powers by means of war and conquest could face significantly more negative consequences in the 21st century than in the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, unless Beijing and Hanoi are willing to take significant economic, political, and military risks, policymakers on neither side should have any incentive to allow nationalism to lead to war.
1. Johnson, K. and De Luce, D. (2016, July 12). Hague Court strikes down Beijing’s South China Sea claims. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/12/hague-court-strikes-down-beijings-south-china-sea-claims/
2. Allen-Ebrahimian, B. (2016, July 12). After South China Sea ruling, China censors online calls for war. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/12/after-south-china-sea-ruling-china-censors-online-calls-for-war-unclos-tribunal/
3. Sutherland, C. (2015, February 11). China in Vietnamese Nationalism. Retrieved from http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/chinapolicyinstitute/2015/02/11/china-in-vietnamese-nationalism/
4. Greenway, H. D. S. (2014, May 24). Vietnam won’t be pushed around by China. Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/05/24/vietnam-won-pushed-around-china/6DfsDLtGZaFc6P1GK0Wy6J/story.html
5. Finch, S. (2014, May 16). The regime could collapse quickly. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/05/16/the-regime-could-collapse-quickly/
6. Davis, M. (2016, July 21). China won’t back down in the South China Sea. The National Interest. Retrieved from http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/china-wont-back-down-the-south-china-sea-17057
7. Vietnam’s trade with China: Fellow travellers, fellow traders. (2012, June 30). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/06/vietnams-trade-china
8. Vietnam’s restocking: Subs, ships, Sukhois, and now perhaps F-16s and P-3s? (2016, June 28). Defense Industry Daily. Retrieved from http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/vietnams-russian-restocking-subs-ships-sukhois-and-more-05396/
9. Holmes, J. (2016, May 23). Washington’s honeymoon in Cam Ranh Bay. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/05/23/washingtons-honeymoon-in-cam-ranh-bay-vietnam-obama/
10. Harris, G. (2016, May 24). Vietnam arms embargo to be fully lifted, Obama says in Hanoi. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/world/asia/vietnam-us-arms-embargo-obama.html?_r=0