China has been aggressively been expanding its maritime power of the past two years. While it is now surprise it takes on that other maritime powerhouse, the US, but – writes journalist Howard French in a comprehensive analysis in the Atlantic – there is enough to worry. For example how it deals with Vietnam.
China’s main frontline opponents in the South China Sea are Vietnam and the Philippines. Analysts in both countries strongly fear that Beijing will seek to make an example of at least one of them, following the venerable Chinese adage that one kills a chicken to scare the monkeys. The question would seem to be which neighbor will serve as the sacrificial chicken; which country China will bully and humiliate as an object lesson to other neighbors that resistance is futile and decisive help from the Americans is unlikely to come.
Today, Vietnam is the only country in the region that seeks to impose serious limits on China’s maritime ambitions but does not have a defense agreement with the United States, making it an attractive target. On the other hand, even if it is scarcely more than one-30th of China’s size, Vietnam has a redoubtable martial culture, as the United States learned in the 1960s. The Chinese, too, should be familiar with the disposition toward resistance: Vietnam repelled a Chinese invasion of the country’s northern borderlands in 1979, leaving as many as 20,000 Chinese soldiers dead. Yet this incident has long since been censored out of China’s national consciousness. And just as they did at the beginning of that assiduously forgotten war, outlets of the Chinese state media have spoken recently of the need to give Vietnam “a lesson it deserves,” or to make it pay “an unaffordable price.”
Although the two countries are nominal ideological allies, their relationship through the centuries has involved many waves of invasion and subjugation, deeply coloring the attitudes of each toward the other. “Invasion is in their blood, and resistance is in our blood” is how a Vietnamese political analyst summed up the countries’ two millennia of bitterly shared history for The New York Times in May.
No one among the score of diplomats and officials I met in Vietnam has any illusion of prevailing in a symmetrical clash with China, naval or otherwise. But Vietnam has at times found unconventional means to overcome bigger and more heavily armed adversaries. This history of defying the odds has fired a mood of self-confidence in Hanoi that sometimes smacks of arrogance.
“We are a very small country, but every time China has wanted to use force against Vietnam, we have stopped them,” a prominent Vietnamese military analyst told me in Kuala Lumpur early this year. We met in a formal reception room in his country’s embassy, furnished with a springy couch, a noisy air conditioner, and fading revolutionary art. High on the wall, in pride of place, hung a portrait of a smiling Ho Chi Minh. “In the Malvinas conflict, Argentina fired only three Exocet missiles; one of them sunk a British ship,” he said. “If the Chinese come with Liaoning, we will defeat them.”
Hanoi recently took delivery of two silent Russian-built, Kilo-class submarines—four more are on the way—and the military analyst unambiguously explained such an expensive purchase for a country with a per capita GDP of only about $1,900: his country needs to be able to sink Chinese ships in order to raise the cost of Chinese aggression to unacceptable levels. “Little by little we are loosening the noose” that China has put around his country’s neck, he told me.
Vietnam has to weigh its response to Chinese provocation with great care, given the two countries’ increasing economic integration. In 2012, at a particularly tense moment with Manila, China suspended imports of bananas from the Philippines, causing huge quantities of the crop to rot on docks. And as soon as tensions rose once the oil rig had been towed into Vietnamese waters, trade between the two countries declined sharply, with Chinese state media warning of possible long-term economic consequences.
To the Vietnamese, the oil-rig incident did not reach a threshold that warranted war. Multiple Vietnamese officials told me that a Chinese bid to seize disputed islands from Vietnam (as it did in 1974 and 1988) probably would. The oil rig’s deployment fomented gigantic protests in Vietnam, where large public demonstrations are rare. On the first day, May 11, hundreds of people turned out peacefully in Hanoi, carrying banners with slogans like “Protect the nation.” Over the next several days, large crowds converged on several industrial parks, attacking Chinese businesses. Vietnamese analysts said that the unrest, in which numerous protesters died, carried a sharp warning that the state’s legitimacy might crumble if it failed to strike back after any new Chinese island grab.
Many Western analysts view China’s approach in the Pacific as a sort of calibrated incrementalism, whereby a Chinese presence and de facto Chinese rights in disputed areas are built up gradually, in a series of provocations that are individually small enough to make forceful resistance politically difficult, but that collectively establish precedents and, over time, norms. The Chinese, in fact, have a name for this approach: the cabbage strategy. An area is slowly surrounded by individual “leaves”—a fishing boat here, a coast-guard vessel there—until it’s wrapped in layers, like a cabbage. (“Salami slicing” is another metaphor for the approach.)
Surely the Chinese would be satisfied if Vietnam simply accepted their slow expansion of maritime rights and territory. But the tempo and tenor of China’s recent actions suggest that Beijing might now also be happy with a contest of strength against Hanoi, especially if Vietnam were perceived as the country that struck first. This, ultimately, is how China’s positioning of its oil rig, backed by an armada, should be understood: it would help legitimize Chinese claims if Vietnam did nothing, and would offer an opportunity to loudly squash the bug in some limited battle—and perhaps to impose crippling economic sanctions—if Hanoi lashed out.
Indeed, given Beijing’s great advantage of force, some Vietnamese officials have recently warned that although military action by their side is emotionally attractive, and perhaps even inevitable, it may do nothing more than spring a Chinese trap. If the question of standing up to China becomes too tightly bound with regime survival, all that might be accomplished is public failure and, ironically, regime change in Vietnam.
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