The Great South China Sea Clash: China vs. Vietnam

In Asia's Cauldron, Beijing and Hanoi are playing a dangerous game—and the stakes could not get any higher.

Alarmed by almost four months of intense maritime jostling between Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces, which sparked the greatest diplomatic crisis between the two Communist states since the end of Cold War, China’s recent decision to withdraw its state-of-the-art oil rig from Vietnam 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was cautiously welcomed by neighboring states—and the broader international community.

Throughout the months-long crisis over China’s unilateral deployment of the $1 billion Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig into Vietnamese-claimed waters, officials in Hanoi confronted an existential dilemma: On one hand, they were deeply alarmed by the explosion of nationalist fervor on the streets of Hanoi and across the country, which led to massive destruction of foreign-owned factories and the exodus of thousands of Chinese citizens, while facing the prospect of a devastating naval showdown with a better-equipped armada of Chinese paramilitary forces defending the oil rig, on the other.

Still shocked by China’s decision to torpedo previous bilateral negotiations aimed at deescalating territorial tensions in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese government wasn’t particularly reassured by China’s announced plans to withdraw the oil rig by mid-August. As Vietnam’s Ambassador to Manila, Truong Trieu Duong, recently told me, “China’s activities violated the high-level agreements of the two countries on nonaggravation and noncomplication of the situation in the SCS.” One could notice a lingering sense of betrayal among many Vietnamese diplomats, who tirelessly sought to prevent armed confrontation and deepening territorial tensions with their powerful neighbor. The oil-rig deployment was largely seen as an opportunistic maneuver to enhance China’s territorial claims and appease nationalist interest groups at home.

There were genuine worries that China would consider a more permanent presence in the contested area, consolidating its claims by sending additional batches of oil rigs accompanied by a thicker protective flotilla of Chinese naval and coast-guard vessels. After all, during the latter decades of the Cold War, China showed little hesitation with coercively expelling (South) Vietnamese forces from the Paracels Island chain and, later, the (unified) Vietnam from strategic locations in the Spratly Island chain.

Given the widening power asymmetry between the two neighbors in recent decades, Hanoi anxiously wondered whether China could be deterred from more provocative actions. At the same time, the Vietnamese government was concerned with its domestic political legitimacy, especially amid an economic slowdown. There were also concerns with the prospect of a new wave of anti-China protests, which could irredeemably tarnish Vietnam’s attraction to foreign investors, especially the Chinese businessmen interested in the country’s affordable labor costs and favorable location.

No wonder, China’s decision to withdraw its oil rig a month ahead of schedule baffled governments and regional experts alike. To make sense out of China’s latest maneuver, analysts have mentioned a number of motivating factors, ranging from the threat of maintaining complex hydrocarbon exploration amid a stormy season in the area to speculations over a possible diplomatic bargain between Hanoi and Beijing. But a better explanation is that China might have (again) recalibrated its territorial posturing, falling back on its age-old strategy of employing temporary deescalation measures to ameliorate international pressure and regional isolation.

The Shifting Momentum

In his magisterial work, On China, Henry Kissinger brilliantly captures China’s strategic culture by emphasizing the importance of concepts such as strategic momentum and the balance of forces in the foreign-policy calculus of Beijing. While China, as any astute realist actor, prizes hard power in its pursuit of national interest, psychological variables and perceptions of the shifting momentum in international configuration of power, in turn, also play a pivotal role in shaping the mindset of Chinese leaders.

China may stand as the most powerful indigenous actor in Asia, but its leaders also know that hard power alone can’t guarantee a successful bid for regional leadership. If Chinese leaders seek to displace the United States as the preeminent power in Asia, Beijing can’t afford to look like an aggressive power bent on pushing its interests at the expense of smaller states in the neighborhood. The ongoing disputes in the Western Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, are dramatically undermining China’s image among its neighbors—and in the wider world.