May 29, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Humphrey Hawksley: Vietnam is no easy target for China

HUMPHREY HAWKSLEY

China's recent decision to force a showdown with Vietnam in waters around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea tempers an argument that has gained momentum in recent months -- that is, with the growing assertiveness of Russia in Ukraine and China in East Asia, a weakening U.S. is being challenged by increasingly confident authoritarian governments.

     Since late last year, Russia has annexed Crimea and encouraged separatism in eastern Ukraine. China meanwhile has tested the resolve of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and now Vietnam with its territorial claims in the East and South China seas.

     The latest and most serious confrontation began in early May, when China brought an oil drilling platform inside Vietnam's 200-mile (321km) Exclusive Economic Zone and moored it about 240km off the country's coastline, roughly midway between Vietnam and the Paracel Islands. The islands are claimed by Hanoi but controlled by Beijing. China's refusal to remove the rig caused outrage in Vietnam, with mobs targeting Chinese factories and workers. The riots clearly had some level of state endorsement -- although analysts believe it unlikely the widening of protests to include non-Chinese workers and factories was part of the plan.

     The oil rig is protected by a cordon of Chinese vessels, including naval warships, which is being challenged by the Vietnamese. Tensions increased with the recent collision of a Chinese vessel and a Vietnamese fishing boat. The fishing boat sank and Hanoi blames the Chinese. What exactly happened is difficult to ascertain, but China maintains that drilling will continue because, in its words, it "cannot afford to lose an inch of territory."

Diversionary tactic

     China's claim to the South China Sea forms a horseshoe that follows the coastlines of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. It covers some 90% of the 10 million sq. km through which half the world's shipping tonnage passes. Beijing's strong-arm policy to bolster its territorial claims roughly coincides with Washington's 2011 announcement of an "Asian pivot" to shift more U.S. military focus toward the Asia-Pacific.

     Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Shanghai, meanwhile, comes amid rising tensions between Russia and the West, conjuring up the prospect of new and troubling alliances between China and like-minded powers on the global stage. With such reinforcement, China could more rapidly develop its blue-water navy to balance American power in the region -- and possibly beyond.

     But if that is the thinking in Beijing, why take on Vietnam, the only other significant authoritarian government in Southeast Asia?

     The answer may lie in China's short-term need to satisfy its nationalistic urges. This overrides the longer-term and more difficult task of becoming a responsible superpower -- and it sees Vietnam as an easy target.

     While almost all other regional contenders have military alliances with the U.S., Vietnam has none with any government. No country is obliged to come to its aid if attacked, and it is highly unlikely that any would. Beijing can show it means business in the South China Sea by flexing its military muscle to intimidate Vietnam, while avoiding direct, high-level confrontations with Japan and the U.S.

     To many in Beijing, Vietnam is merely a troublesome vassal state that on occasion has repelled Chinese incursions on its northern border, but has yet to learn how to live in the shadow of its much stronger neighbor.

     The Chinese may have a point.

     In recent years, China's development has forged ahead, in contrast to Vietnam's more lackluster performance. According to the World Bank, between 2009 and 2012 China's per-capita gross domestic product rose from $3,749 to $6,091, while Vietnam's spluttered along, rising from $1,232 to just $1,755. Likewise, China's infant mortality improved from 15 to 12 per 1,000 live births, while Vietnam's barely moved from 19 to 18 over the same period.

     Vietnam also relies heavily on Chinese trade, which is worth some $40 billion a year. The relative stability and growth of East Asia have made both countries richer. But China -- partly through sheer numbers -- has emerged as an impatient, turbocharged power that can shake the world stage, while Vietnam has barely made a ripple.

     The last Sino-Vietnamese alliance was forged between two revolutionary stalwarts, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, and lasted from France's humiliating 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu through America's flight from Saigon in 1975.

     But a year earlier, in 1974, China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam, and refused to return them after the North Vietnamese victory. Beijing has now set up the Sansha prefecture on Woody Island, or Yongxing Dao, in the Paracels, from which the islands of the South China Sea are technically governed.

     In 1988, China attacked Vietnamese positions on the Spratly Islands, 710km to the southeast, killing 60 sailors.

     Bilateral relations deteriorated further due to China's support for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. As well as carrying out genocidal policies, the regime led by Pol Pot launched cross-border raids into Vietnam. Much to China's fury, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, ending Khmer Rouge rule. The next year, China sent its troops across Vietnam's northern border. But it was badly beaten by an army with decades of experience fighting and winning against stronger, richer powers.

     That same famously stubborn Vietnamese determination may again be coming into play.

     In 2009, Vietnam placed a $3.2 billion order with Russia for six Kilo class diesel-electric submarines equipped with with 275-kilometer range cruise missiles. The first has already been delivered, with the remainder due by 2016, together with 12 Su-30 fighter jets.

Pride vs. economics

In Vietnamese military academies, the South China Sea remains at the top of the conflict syllabus and if it comes to a choice between the economy and protecting its territory and independence, the government's track record regarding which it will sacrifice is clear.

     Vietnam's navy remains minuscule compared with China's. But, on paper, Vietnam's army was similarly outmatched against the firepower of France and the U.S. -- and for that matter, China itself. Its greatest asset, as American troops discovered, is a formidable fighting spirit: Vietnam has been prepared to fight invaders to every last man and woman.

     "The South China Sea may prove to be China's Dien Bien Phu," warns one Vietnamese diplomat. "And it will be us, not the Americans, who stop Beijing's bullying in East Asia."

Humphrey Hawksley, a BBC correspondent and Asia specialist, is the author of Dragon Strike: The Millenium War (Macmillan) -- a hypothetical account of a conflict between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea.