The China-Vietnam Standoff: How Will It End?
The China-Vietnam Standoff: How Will It End?
A ChinaFile Conversation
Five thousand miles from Ukraine, off the coast of Vietnam, China is taking a page from Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s playbook. Beijing’s recent placement of a huge oil drilling rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea leverages a similar set of tactics. In Ukraine, Russia targeted a weak, non-U.S. ally on its frontier, using paramilitary forces to avoid the appearance of naked aggression as long as possible. In the South China Sea, Beijing is trying to press its territorial claims on Vietnam, a militarily inferior neighbor that does not have an American alliance to fall back upon. Beijing, like Moscow, has also deployed force opaquely, denying that the armada of 80 ships accompanying the rig includes any military vessels.
In Crimea, this form of gray aggression succeeded, but in the South China Sea, it may not. The stakes for China are significant, starting with control of energy resources and ending with a more distant but compelling goal – the creation of a new order in Asia. Yet the near-term stakes are much higher for Vietnam: sovereignty and self-respect. And China is trying to apply Putin’s playbook to a more difficult target. Vietnam, in contrast to Ukraine, is not plagued by internal divisions, and its government has recently invested in military upgrades.
Vietnam has not shied away from escalation in the past, and its pledge to “apply all necessary and suitable measures to defend its rights and legitimate interests” should be taken seriously. It is likely that Vietnam will first press its case through international law and through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which it is a member. But if such steps fail and China moves forward with drilling, a military confrontation is not out of the question. China would likely win an armed clash, but it could prove an empty victory, pushing Beijing’s fearful neighbors to build up their militaries and pursue even closer ties with the United States.
There are three possible interpretations for China’s decision to deploy the giant HD-981 oil rig to Block 143 inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. These interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The first interpretation posits that the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) decided to conduct commercial exploration activities in blocks it had put out to tender in response to Vietnam’s adoption of the Law on the Sea in mid-2012. As Susan Shirk notes CNOOC had already carried out seismic surveys and was likely following up.
This interpretation is questionable given the size and composition of the fleet of 80 Chinese ships and vessels that accompanied the oil rig. As Shirk observes this was “certainly not business as usual.” Indeed, diplomats in Beijing report that CNOOC officials were ordered to deploy the rig despite their misgivings about the high daily costs and the low evaluation of Block 143 as a source of oil and gas reserves.
The second interpretation argues that CNOOC’s actions were in response to the operations by U.S. oil giant ExxonMobile in nearby blocks. This interpretation too seems unlikely. ExxonMobile has been operating in Block 119 since 2011 despite initial Chinese protests. It is unclear how the operations of a Chinese oil rig in Block 143 would deter ExxonMobile from operating elsewhere.
The third interpretation stresses the geo-political motivations behind China’s actions. The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.
The third interpretation has plausibility. China can make its point and then withdraw the oil rig once it has completed its mission in mid-August. But this interpretation begs the question why Vietnam was the focus for this crisis and why China acted on the eve of the summit meeting of the heads of government/state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The CCP government is committed to making the PRC, seen as a uniquely moral actor, the dominant power in Asia. At times, ruling groups in Beijing seize on pretexts and claim that the PRC is reactive. Other times, the PRC manifestly takes the initiative. But, in both cases, the sources of Chinese behavior lie inside Chinese politics and not in Tokyo or Hanoi or Washington.
CCP leaders have long claimed that PRC assertiveness, including the use of military force on behalf of sovereignty, territorial claims and energy imperatives are justified and should be considered as peaceful acts. Even peaceful rise theorist Zheng Bijian said that military actions on behalf of these objectives were not exceptions to peaceful rise. This reality was long misunderstood by most international analysts who persuaded themselves that only Taiwan could be a cause of war for China. China’s regional assertiveness clearly (the Paracels in 1974, the Spratleys in 1988, etc.) is not as new as some claim.
The CCP embraces the Orwellian position that war is peace. It now says so explicitly and brags about its assertiveness, a posture which is a big seller inside CCP politics. As everyone knows, this expansionist PRC agenda is legitimated as restoring China to its rightful and supposedly historical regional centrality that its neighbors are claimed to have welcomed, a position which in fact is not accepted by any of the PRC’s neighbors in Asia.
However, ruling groups in Beijing tend to believe that Chinese beneficence, that is, spreading money around to neighbors (and the PRC with $4 trillion in foreign exchange has lots of money to spread around), will get those neighbors to acquiesce to subordination to the PRC. Along the way, the PRC may have to, as its rulers see it, put down some temporarily uppity neighbors.
This will not, the CCP believes, create a larger war with the USA, a war which the CCP does not seek. As the CCP sees it, the US won’t go to war for disputed rocks in the South Sea when even ASEAN won’t join against PRC expansionism.
Indeed, the CCP expects its neighbors to learn that they are all alone with a dominant China and that no other nation will come to their rescue. The CCP imagines that this expansive agenda is winning for China the predominance that, in the CCP imagination, is rightfully China’s since China is the only magnanimous world power on this earth. CCP leaders tend to believe that, once its neighbors abandon illusions about the US coming to their aid or about their independent ability to stand against the PRC, they will become persuaded that CCP policies are somehow actually win-win and therefore concede to Chinese domination.
What is it that should persuade them they are wrong in this assessment?