By: Our Correspondent

The risk of a military confrontation between China and Vietnam is rising over a long string of issues, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a Senior Fellow at the US-based think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations, who points out that the previous half-dozen years have led to a growing arms race in the region that is exacerbating tensions.

Since 2011, with Beijing’s increasing assertiveness over its so-called “nine-dash line,” which allegedly gives China hegemony over 90 percent of the South China Sea, the tension has been growing. As the world has watched, China has repeatedly dared regional anger by moving oil rigs into disputed areas, dredged and occupied parts of the disputed Paracel Islands, and constructed at least one and potentially multiple airstrips, possibly for military use, in the Spratly Islands.

With the US “tilting” towards Asia, the possibility is also increasing that strategic relationships with countries in the region could risk drawing the US into difficulty  although Kurlantzick notes that when the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have presented a unified stance, Beijing has responded. That is difficult, with China wooing several of the Asean nations with munificent aid packages.

Kurlantzick is a former foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia and the author of five books on the region, including Leviathan, Inc., a study of state power, which is due out later this year. As he writes, Vietnam, like China, has also tried to use oil explorations to claim disputed areas of the sea and reportedly has rammed Chinese vessels in disputed waters. Vietnam has cultivated close military ties to the United States, to other Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines, and to regional powers such as India, all to the consternation of China. In addition, Vietnam and China increasingly compete for influence in mainland Southeast Asia, where Vietnam had dominated between the 1970s and late 2000s.

“These growing sources of friction could lead to a serious military confrontation between the two countries in the next 12 to 18 months, with potentially significant consequences for the United States,” according to the research paper, titled A China-Vietnam Military Clash. “Accordingly, the United States should seek to defuse tensions and help avert a serious crisis.”

Concerns revolve around three major issues: the escalation of tension over disputed territory in the South China Sea, exchanges of fire across the China-Vietnam land border, the unintended military actions surrounding a Vietnamese military exercises with Hanoi’s new strategic partners the Philippines, India, Singapore and possibly the US and an increasingly assertive Japan, and official Chinese and Vietnamese public declarations denouncing each other.

As Kurlantzick points out, the two sides regularly denounce each other, with large anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, usually to protest Chinese activities in the South China Sea, although sometimes to demonstrate against other actions taken by Beijing.

Vietnam is actively looking to formalize closer relationships with more regional powers, such as Indonesia, that share its concerns about Chinese dominance.

“An announcement of a new Vietnamese strategic partnership with another Asian nation like Indonesia should be seen as a potential sign of rising tensions between Beijing and Hanoi,” he writes. “Large new aid packages from China to mainland Southeast Asian nations have clearly worried Hanoi.”

After then-Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cambodia in 2010, during which China announced US$1.2 billion in new aid deliveries to Phnom Penh, Vietnamese leaders scrambled to get Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to publicly highlight his bond with Hanoi. Anti-China sentiment in Vietnam spiked at that time, possibly in part due to official encouragement.

The factors that could tip the balance include movement of oil rigs into disputed waters and/or declarations of claims, Army drills near the China-Vietnam land border, and Chinese military preparations in response to announced exercises by Vietnam and its partners. 

What Are the Stakes for the US?

The United States “has several options to lower the risk of a China-Vietnam military crisis, although US influence over China and even Vietnam is limited. These include strategies to promote cooperation, options designed to bolster Vietnam’s ability to deter Chinese actions that threaten freedom of navigation and/or US strategic interests, and options that would allow the United States to disengage from a China-Vietnam conflict that did not threaten US strategic interest or involve US allies.”

A code of conduct for vessels operating in the South China Sea could be the most effective cooperative strategy, he writes.  China and the littoral nations have participated in talks about a code of conduct since 2010. A second cooperative strategy could be to promote ASEAN-China joint economic and scientific projects in the South China Sea, such as programs to codify the marine biodiversity. Third, joint China-Vietnam patrols of the two countries’ land border should be encouraged. Although the two countries’ border police hold regular consultations and sometimes exchange intelligence, they do not conduct joint patrols, which would put senior officers in closer communication and reduce the risk of exchanges of fire along the border.      

It is up to the US to use naval maneuvers, arms sales, clear declarations of US policy and joint exercises to deter Chinese expansionism, he writes. Indeed, the US has developed links with many of the littoral nations, conducting such military exercises as Cobra Gold, the annual exercise hosted in Thailand.  The US, he writes, could send US Navy ships into areas of potential conflict, as the Clinton administration did in 1997 when it sent the Seventh Fleet down the Strait of Formosa to end Chinese rocket-rattling over Taiwan.

“Clearer public and private US statements about the South China Sea risk antagonizing China and contributing to escalation, but even without clear US declarations on the South China Sea,” the report notes, “Beijing is rapidly dredging and militarizing disputed maritime areas. China is unlikely to halt its actions if the United States retains an ambiguous stance on the South China Sea.

“In the event of an unprovoked attack on a US treaty ally in the South China Sea, the United States would almost surely be obligated to help in defense, whether or not Washington had made clear public statements in advance. Not assisting in a partner’s defense could dramatically undermine the United States’ image as guarantor of regional security.”