By: Khanh Vu Duc

On June 21, the Vietnamese National Assembly adopted the Vietnam Maritime Law, which was promptly criticized by China. The law sets out the legal status of Vietnam’s islands and sea and sovereignty under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which also includes the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands. Claiming sovereignty over these islands under the law has unnecessarily irked China and opened up yet another chapter in the ongoing South China Sea dispute.

In response to any slight, real or imaginary, could China teach Vietnam a lesson?

A series of conflicts

This spat over the Vietnam Maritime Law is merely one in a long line of conflicts between China and Vietnam. Vietnam’s origins are rooted in China’s history and its history is marred by periods of feudal strife, colonial oppression, and civil war. Although the ruling parties of each country fly the flag of Communism, at times necessary allies and enemies, there is little love lost between them.

Although wars have been fought between the two, the last to be fought between China and an independent Vietnam was the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, sparked largely by Vietnam’s invasion and overthrow of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia a month earlier. The Sino-Vietnamese War saw Chinese forces invade parts of northern Vietnam, ultimately transforming into a border war between the two countries. Vietnam, provided with intelligence from the Soviet Union (an ally of Vietnam and opponent of China), was able to react accordingly and keep the war from spreading farther south. Casualties were in the thousands and little had changed by the war’s end a month later. Both sides would claim victory, although small skirmishes continued well into the 1980s.

Deng Xiaoping’s assertion that it would teach Vietnam a lesson failed in its goal of sacking Hanoi, but it did reinforce hostilities between the two neighbors. Said hostilities lessened during the 1990s, but the Spratly and Paracel disputes continue to plague both nations.

China is clearly capable of carrying out similarly limited military operations against Vietnam. Since 1979, China has not only grown economically; it has also taken steps to improve its military capabilities. It is no longer a predominantly peasant nation but a modernizing state. That China could “teach Vietnam a lesson” is not the question. The question is whether China will impart said lesson.

Yes, but…

In this globalized world, military force between nations is seldom used as a first response. It is money, not bullets, which reign supreme, and for China, an economic powerhouse rather than the backwater nation it once was, economic threats have the ability to do more than military might. The geopolitical climate of 1979 and the Cold War are today nonexistent. The US, fatigued from Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot be compared to its counterpart following the Vietnam War. Despite its withdrawal from Iraq and gradual downsize in Afghanistan, the US has not retreated from the international stage to lick its wounds, as evidenced by its pivot towards Asia-Pacific. Its chief rival throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, has abut disappeared. Wars between nations are increasingly rare with the nebulous and unpredictable nature of piracy and terrorism proving most threatening.

This is not to say wars between nations do not happen—the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the South Ossetian War between Russia and Georgia in 2008 come to mind—never mind civil wars, which may include the Arab Spring and ongoing Syrian conflict, as well as any number on the African continent. All of this having taken place in the first decade and spilling into the second of the 21st century, gives one the impression that we live in dangerous times.

Military force, however, is a brutish and costly approach to resolving matters better handled diplomatically and/or economically. Today, China has in its arsenal of responses the ability to impose its will economically. In 1979, China’s attempt to teach Vietnam a lesson involved sending soldiers across the border. In 2012 and beyond, one can assume that China might simply counter any perceived Vietnamese intransigence via threat of economic consequences. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that China could absorb Vietnam economically. No need for guns when one’s opponent could simply buy one out.

But more than its unmatched economic strength, there is reason why China would like to avoid any conflict with Vietnam. Given Beijing’s efforts to shape international perception of China, made difficult by its lack of democracy and poor human rights record, going to war would simply reinforce the image of China as a bully and belligerent, not yet ready to join the international community as a leader.

Beyond international perception of China, Beijing must also contend with the United States, which will not sit idly by should war come about. The US is unlikely to meet China openly on the battlefield; however, it would be foolish to assume that they will do nothing. It is quite possible that the US would fulfill the expected role of the Soviet Union during 1979 and perhaps more. American support can come in the form of diplomatic, economic, and intelligence assistance, leaving direct assistance to pro-American agents inside Vietnam.

Direct confrontation with China would be discouraged to preserve Washington’s relations with Beijing and vice versa. In the event that Vietnam becomes untenable, the US could simply cut Vietnam loose and repair diplomatic relations with China. The Vietnamese government, if it should seek US assistance, would do well to keep in mind that is not the Philippines.

War therefore seems unlikely despite current flareups between Vietnam and China. Far from suggesting that China will remain docile in affirming its place in Asia-Pacific and the globe, it will seek to avoid violent confrontation, so as not to lose the battle of public opinion.

A change in government

Relations between Vietnam and China can best be described as hot and cold, due in large part to the former’s schizophrenic nature.

Simply put, the Vietnamese government is not a reliable partner. Understandable in its efforts to walk a fine line between China and the United States, the government has not pursued this path to better the lives of its citizens but to ensure its continued rule. Side with China and the country runs the risk of falling under the influence of Beijing; however, should they join the US, they then risk being pressured into carrying out political reform, thus surrendering their power to the people.

Vietnam’s noncommittal attitude has undoubtedly contributed to China’s irritation with its southern neighbor and the US’s reluctance to openly seek Vietnam as a strategic partner (among other reasons). It is not unusual or necessarily wrong that a government is driven by self-interest. In the case of Vietnam, however, this self-interest has come at the expense of its people and its relations with other countries.

A changing of the guard, so to speak, and the manner in which it does business would surely be met with approval by the US and China. Political reform is necessary, not merely to improve the lives of its citizens but its relations abroad. A changed government is not the magic bullet that will resolve political tensions between Hanoi and Beijing; however, it may serve to cool tensions between the two countries.

Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.