Fires in Vietnam could ultimately burn Beijing


The spilling of blood and burning of factories by anti-Chinese rioters sweeping across Vietnam reinforces Beijing's message to other countries claiming territory in the South China Sea: resistance is costly and ultimately futile.

But a region in which anti-Chinese sentiment grows and where sovereignty disputes disrupt trade and economic growth will burn Beijing as well. Over the long term, a commitment to peaceful dispute resolution in accordance with international law, including some concessions on historic claims, would serve China better than its current path.

China made the provocative first move in this latest incident by deploying a massive oil rig to the contested Paracel Islands. There was no doubt that Vietnam would respond, and China prepared by sending an armada of 80 ships - including seven naval vessels along with the rig. The two countries' maritime forces are now locked in a standoff with aggressive and dangerous maneuvers, water canons and collisions at sea.

Deploying the oil rig allows Beijing to show that Vietnam is in a lose-lose situation when faced with Chinese aggression. If Hanoi ignores the Chinese move, it allows "new facts on the water" that will bolster China's legal claims down the road. If it resists, its coast guard and navy will be dragged into a long and costly contest against a stronger force. And if the dispute continues to spark violent protests at home by angry Vietnamese nationalists, investment and international confidence gets disrupted for Vietnam - not China.

China does not want open conflict with its neighbors, but when it comes to territorial disputes, the Chinese government has decided it can play hardball with little risk. It can push just enough to advance its own claims, but avoid serious conflict or war by deescalating before things get out of hand.

Beyond the oil rig, Chinese actions in this vein include new construction on contested reefs and shoals occupied by China; patrols and ceremonies on islands claimed by other nations like Malaysia; unilateral fishing bans imposed on other nations while China tolerates illegal fishing and harvesting of coral by Chinese fishermen; and many more. At the same time, China continues to participate in negotiations on a Code of Conduct among the countries it bullies, intended to prevent conflict and prohibit exactly this kind of behavior.

For Chinese leaders committed to defending what they view to be Chinese territory, this aggressive path makes sense for two reasons. First, it teaches the smaller maritime nations of Southeast Asia that they're better off accommodating Chinese claims than resisting them. In essence, China is saying "we can do this the easy way or the hard way."

Second, China knows that its most important claims - like the nine-dash line covering most of the South China Sea - are not well-founded under contemporary international law. By taking aggressive steps now, Beijing can establish a track record of presence and activity that will position China better if it ever needs to clarify claims in accordance with international law, as called for by the United States and other nations.

But this strategy is bold, not wise. Beijing's actions carry significant risk, and mask a tension between China's short and long-term goals. Sailors or airmen in tense standoffs could miscalculate and spark an incident that demands military escalation. Countries like Vietnam could also decide to take a stand and choose to fight rather than give in to Chinese pressure. Yet that decision would be calamitous: the last time China and Vietnam went to war, in 1979, about 60,000 people were killed. China would not benefit from such conflict in Asia, especially if it took the blame for derailing Asia's long run of peace and progress.

Even if it avoids war, China can overplay this hand to such a degree that Southeast Asian nations defy history and join together to resist domination by a resurgent Middle Kingdom. The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are far from forming an alliance and have no tradition of such banding together, but ASEAN has grown stronger and is welcoming a greater U.S. role in the region, in part because of China's assertiveness.

For now, Beijing's refrain seems to be from the Rolling Stones: "don't play with me 'cause you're playing with fire." Chinese leaders think the fire will only burn their rivals. They are wrong.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Very true!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

All it will take will be for the ASEAN nations to grow the cajones to stand up to China.

China can win against any single small state, but if they all stay united China can only win a single battle, and will lose the long war.

While I hate to see the US dragged back to SE Asia, a sea war there is nothing like a land war, and the US unparalleled resources to obliterate China's navy, and they know it.

Even when the Liaoning becomes fully operational - years from now for effective carrier operations - the US has the full carriers, as well as the LPH's with Harriers now and F-35's in the future, to overwhelm Chinese assets. If you take India's current carriers, and Australia's future carriers, you could overwhelm China without the US.

So, Vietnam and Phillippines and Malaysia and Singapore, grow the cajones and stand up to them!

6 ( +6 / -0 )


1 ( +1 / -0 )

Very well written article - great read!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

middle kingdom is only a BS name. , called by China, when the earth was full of ignorance. Now the US has demanded China to hand over five army officers for trial with the claim of 300 billions dollars damage per year, or else. This is the battle the US choose to take on China for its provocations. Adding to that Vietnam , even with current corrupt, incompetent government, will never give up the fight. Russian media is already on Vietnam side even the government is still not clear. And also the whole ASEAN is on the alert...I don't know, it seems that greed has effectively destroyed China's wisdom.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

NavyCDRMAY. 21, 2014 - 10:42AM JST China can win against any single small state, but if they all stay united China can only win a single battle, and will lose the long war.

A bit of historical perspective. Most people forget, I guess, that China was involved in a long-simmering border war with Vietnam in the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Yes, that was 40 years ago, but I doubt that even today that the Chinese army is any more dedicated to Beijing's machinations than was the Soviet army to Moscow in Afghanistan.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Hassling Vietnam is a bad idea. Trust me.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

China is off its bloody rocker!!

As I have said many times the China that the west helped create has become a MONSTER & may very well need to put out of our collective misery!!

China is SO SCARED of its own people it feels it MUST provoke its neighbours in order to rally its own, its a deadly game & the commies must feel they are in trouble either way & are getting desperate!

It may soon become time to try to start avoiding made in China goods to make a point.

China is really screwing badly in all this!!

So China what are you going to do?!?! Explode........implode.......... or BOTH!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

All politicians are inherently evil it seems.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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