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The Battle for the South China Sea

Furious mobs fire-bombed Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam in retaliation for China placing an oil rig in what Vietnam claims are its territorial waters. Hanoi is cracking down on “hooligans” and even peaceful demonstrations, but Beijing still decided to evacuate thousands of its citizens.

Earlier this month the Vietnamese and Chinese navies squared off with each other in the South China Sea over the very same issue.

This is just the beginning of what could be a very long conflict. Vietnam and China both claim the Spratly Islands, as do Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.

Nobody lives permanently on any of them. They’re a dispersed archipelago of specks, many of which are underwater at high tide, that in aggregate only make up one-and-a-half square land miles. They don’t have any resources per se, but maritime borders are extensions of land borders, so whoever claims the Spratlies can claim the waters around them. And the waters around them are valuable, hence the oil rig and Vietnam’s violent reaction.

Rioters spared at least one factory because it flies the American flag. Don’t be surprised. Vietnam’s people are no more angry at Americans right now than Americans are angry at the Vietnamese. The war between our two countries is almost forty years old, as far back in history as World War II was in 1984. Most of Vietnam’s negative energy is directed at China, which it has struggled on-and-off against for centuries. A Vietnamese diplomat put it into perspective: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The US invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive Mexicans are about that.”

Vietnam’s perception of China is more like Poland’s view of Russia than Mexico’s of the US. “This threat posed by China toward Vietnam comes not only from geographical proximity,” wrote Le Hong Hiep at East Asia Forum in 2011, “but also the asymmetry of size and power between the two countries. China is 29 times larger than Vietnam, while Vietnam’s population, despite being the world’s 14th largest, is still only equivalent to one of China’s mid-sized provinces.

The South China Sea will be contested for a long time. The United States has naval dominance now, and it aggravates the Chinese for the same reason Americans would be aggravated if Beijing had naval dominance in the Caribbean or off the coast of New York or California. There’s a difference, though, and it’s huge. The Caribbean is peripheral, but more than half the world’s merchant shipping passes through the South China Sea.

China naturally wants to push the US out of its yard, but the other states in the region don’t want the US navy to leave because they’d be overwhelmed at once by the Chinese. The Guardian quotes a Vietnamese café owner in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) who says, “I worry that if we didn't have the support of the West, we would definitely be at war with China, and we would lose.” Even with American dominance, China’s navy has confronted not only Vietnam’s, but also that of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia,  and Brunei.

Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes maritime Southeast Asia as a major upcoming theater of conflict. “The composite picture,” he writes, “is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building largely behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe; it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographic meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.”

Don’t expect these confrontations to be as harsh as those between Russia and its neighbors. Russia is more paranoid and aggressive than China, and it’s a land power. Water tends to stop or at least slow military expansion. (Does anyone think Taiwan would be independent today if Chinese soldiers could drive there in tanks?) But water doesn’t stop all projections of strength. That’s what navies are for. And China’s is the fastest-growing on earth.

Wars are rarely fought over resources anymore. Most modern conflicts are about power and ideology. (Some of the wars I’ve covered were also about identity. Syria’s civil war has elements of all three.) The contest over the South China Sea, though, is old school. Perhaps it will be bloody and perhaps (mostly) not. Nobody knows. But Vietnam and China are both becoming stronger and more prosperous, and Beijing is ramping up its naval power at the same time the Washington is scaling back.

The region began heating up less than two months after Asia’s Cauldron was published, and we have not heard the last from this part of the world. As Walter Russell Mead put it even before Vietnam’s riots, the battle for the South China Sea is officially on.

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