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Vietnam Dangles at the Tip of the Chinese Spear

South China Sea islands are arguably ground zero in any potential war between China and Vietnam.

January 7, 2016

South China Sea islands are arguably ground zero in any potential war between China and Vietnam.

Which of these statements about the Chinese-Vietnamese relationship is not true?

    1. China and Vietnam are both ruled by Communist Party governments.
    2. Buddhism and Confucianism are important parts of the historical cultures of both China and Vietnam.
    3. China played a pivotal role in helping Vietnam expel both French and American military forces.
    4. China and Vietnam remain close friends and strong allies.

In fact, the correct answer here is Answer #4: China and Vietnam remain anything but close friends and strong allies, despite their numerous similarities.

There are ample historical reasons for this enmity, which will come as a surprise to many Westerners with scant knowledge of Asia.

In ancient times – going back to 100 B.C. – China invaded Vietnam and ruled it for a thousand years before the Vietnamese people rose up and expelled their conquerors.

And, as late as 1979, China invaded Vietnam – this time as “punishment” for its alliance with the Soviet Union. In the end, though, it was primarily China that was truly punished, as its army suffered extremely heavy casualties.

This invasion history notwithstanding, the primary source of enmity between the two countries today is China’s repeated bullying of Vietnam in the waters of the South China Sea. Two past events are particularly important in focusing attention there.

Why the South China Sea?

First, in 1974, China took the Paracel Islands at gunpoint from a severely weakened South Vietnam, which no longer had U.S. military support. American forces refused to intervene, especially during its nascent Nixon-Kissinger rapprochement with China. South Vietnam had to withdraw.

China had clearly used its superior firepower to outgun a weaker ally in the absence of U.S. support. Vietnam, now long since re-united, is still deeply angered by China’s taking of the Paracels. This strategic island chain has emerged as one major flashpoint in any potential war between China and Vietnam.

The second major flashpoint is the Spratly Islands. In 1988, China asserted its revanchist claim by building an observation post on Fiery Cross Reef. Vietnam responded with troops waving Vietnamese flags on nearby Johnson South Reef. Chinese warships trained their high-caliber anti-aircraft guns on the protesters and slaughtered them.

Today, the disputed Spratly reefs and islets are home to China’s now infamous “fortress garrisons.” Those South China Sea trouble spots have re-entered the news as the focal point around which US and Chinese warships circle in an escalating battle over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Of Silk, Spice, and Oil

While the South China Sea is often referred to as a “marginal sea” – meaning that it is partially enclosed by islands – there is nothing “marginal” about a body of water that is the largest in the world after the five oceans.

Indeed, fully one-third of all global shipping now transits through the South China Sea’s more than one million square miles.

It’s not just this modern day “silk and spice” trade that makes the South China Sea so important. Its waters are also home to some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the world in a region where fish is a key source of protein.

In addition, oil and natural gas reserves comparable to those of the Persian Gulf may lie beneath its seabed. Most broadly, and strategically, it may also be accurately said that whoever controls this gateway to the Indian Ocean also controls Southeast Asia itself – and perhaps East Asia.

The latter is true considering that much of the oil that powers up Japan and South Korea must first pass through the South China Sea.

Given these high economic and national security stakes, it should come as no surprise that the South China Sea is also a center of intense conflict.

Paracel islands

As for possible war triggers, tripwires and flashpoints involving China, Vietnam is very much involved in the equation centered on the Paracel Islands group in the northern part of the South China Sea.

The Paracel Islands are arguably ground zero in any potential war between China and Vietnam. These islands are located a little over 300 miles from Hainan Island in China and a little under 200 miles from Da Nang, Vietnam.

They consist of just 30 small islets, sand banks and reefs — with a total surface area of a mere 1.3 square miles. Small in land mass though they may be, these land features are, however, spread out over 5,800 square miles of ocean.

As such, they convey very expansive resource rights under the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty. In particular, under the Law of the Sea Treaty, nations are granted 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones radiating out from their coastlines.

Within these so-called EEZs, these nations are entitled to all of the natural resource rights both within the waters themselves – think fish here – and beneath the seabed – think oil and natural gas.

Now, here’s the key “will there be war” point: It is not just the large coastlines of countries like China from which EEZs can be delineated.

If an island is habitable, no matter how small it may be, it gets a 200-mile EEZ as well – one that radiates in a full 360-degree sweep.

In fact, this is a key point often lost on analysts and journalists who routinely devalue disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands as meaningless squabbles over worthless “rocks in the sea.”

This is an extremely myopic view. Indeed, by seizing the Paracels from Vietnam, China has effectively extended its EEZ from 200 miles to over 300 miles from mainland China.

In similar leapfrog fashion, with its successful Spratly Island grabs, China can now claim an EEZ that reaches out over 500 miles.

Of course, through this revanchist process, China’s EEZ has begun to significantly overlap with the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries in the region, and how these overlapping resource rights should be resolved has become a matter of fierce contention.

The bully in the region

The danger now is that a bullying China will resort to coercion or outright military force to settle these disputes in its favor — as it has already done on numerous occasions in the recent past with Vietnam as well as Japan and the Philippines.

For example, Chinese fishing vessels, often accompanied by Chinese coast guard ships, continue to push Vietnamese fishermen further and further out from waters that Vietnam has fished for centuries.

While these contested waters are often clearly within Vietnam’s own Exclusive Economic Zone, they are also caught within the Paracel Islands overlap claimed by China – a claim all the more troubling to Vietnam given that China seized the Paracels from it to begin with.

Vietnam knows a rapidly militarizing China wants its natural resources, and it is responding to this undisguised aggression with its own quite significant military buildup to protect itself.

There are also the cautious overtures now being made to the United States by a Vietnam perhaps hoping to tuck itself beneath the same kind of security umbrella now enjoyed by other U.S. allies in Asia, such as Japan and the Philippines.

No small irony here, given that the two countries fought a bitter war for more than a decade not so long ago. As things stand, Vietnam – secure in the knowledge of having defeated the United States — is not afraid of it.

And in its strategic calculation, it would rather have a superpower friend physically located over 7,000 miles away than a superpower foe on its borders with a long history of invading Vietnamese territory.

At the end of the day, the China-Vietnam trigger is one fraught with dangerous possibilities, high stakes economic disputes, and no shortage of strategic conundrums.

History also plays a role: While China’s own Vietnam War was exceedingly short, it was grievously long on casualties.

In less than one month, China may have lost more troops – some say as many as 60,000 – than the United States lost in more than a decade in its own Vietnam War.

How things evolve will depend not just on how aggressively China continues to press its claims, but also on how diplomacy in the region dances around any emerging American-Vietnamese alliance.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Peter Navarro’s book “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books, 2015).


China and Vietnam remain anything but close friends despite their numerous similarities.

One-third of all global shipping transits through South China Sea’s more than 1 million square miles.

The Paracel Islands are arguably ground zero in any potential war between China and Vietnam.

While China’s own Vietnam War was exceedingly short, it was grievously long on casualties.