There Could Well Be a War in South China Sea

Jun 20, 2011

There are good reasons why China and Vietnam are increasingly belligerent in the territorial dispute.

1000 Anti-Chinese protestors in Vietnam

Tensions between China and Vietnam over the disputed South China Sea suddenly escalated recently.

May 29 – Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry held a press conference over the weekend to state its stance on the dispute. Spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga not only blamed China, but also declared “the Vietnamese Navy will take all necessary measures to protect Vietnam’s independence, autonomy and territorial integrity”.

June 9 – Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made his first official statement on the issue, saying Vietnam has “incontestable sovereignty” on Hoang Sa archipelago” (that is, China’s Xisha Islands) and the “Spratly Islands” (China’s Nansha Islands). That he, the country’s top leader, spoke on the issue reflects the seriousness with which Vietnam views the dispute.

"We continue to affirm strongly and to manifest the strongest determination of all the Party, of all the people and of all the army in protecting Vietnamese sovereignty in maritime zones and islands of the country," he said.

June 13 – Vietnam held live fire drills in the disputed waters.

At the same time, anti-Chinese sentiment among the Vietnamese is rapidly mounting. On June 5, hundreds gathered in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi to protest China’s “aggression” in Vietnam’s territorial waters. A second demonstration took place the following Sunday, as protestors waved flags, shouting “Stop the violation of Vietnamese sovereignty”. In south Ho Chi Minh City anti-Chinese protestors signed petitions against “Chinese invasion” and urged the boycott of Chinese goods.

Demonstrations are not usually tolerated in Vietnam, but the police did not step in to stop these protests. All these give the impression that Vietnam is already preparing for a showdown with China over the South China Sea row.

There are signs that Vietnam’s recently hardened stance is not merely emotional. Since 2007 Vietnam has organised “congressional representatives” elections on the disputed islands. On May 3 this year, Vietnam wrote to the United Nations, reaffirming the sovereignty of the disputed islands.

On top of this, Vietnam has unusually spiked up its military spending – its military budget soared 70% to US$2.6 billion in 2011. Its 2009 purchase of 6 “Kilo”-class submarines from Russia – of which delivery has begun – shows an obvious intent to deal with China.

Why has Vietnam taken on a hardened line? The main reason for this is the United States’ high-profile voicing of support for Vietnam against China last year, which gives Vietnam no longer any reason to fear the latter.

On the other hand, both Vietnam and China face the same problems, including rampant corruption, rich-poor divide, difficult employment conditions, crazy food inflation, the loss of social equality and justice, etc. Both need the South China Sea issue as their headline news, to divert the people’s attention from the internal problems and so resolve the tensions within the country.

If China and Vietnam both believe that going to war could rouse their people to fierce patriotism and resolve the internal conflicts of their societies, the South China Sea dispute could indeed become a regional war. Yet if that is truly to happen, both countries will not only need meticulous preparation, but also to deal with the response of other Southeast Asian nations and the international arena.

But whether China wins an external war does not depend on the enemy, but on whether there is political struggle or stability within China itself. If internal power struggle or political instabilty necessitates an external enemy, then an enemy will be created! So if going to war could unite the Chinese people into patriotic fervor, and in so doing, help the ruling party consolidate its position and silence the critics, and allow the rich and elite to continue their plunder – even with the lack of careful preparation – there could well be a war in the South China Sea!


This post was translated from 蔡慎坤博客 in June 2011.