Although unquestionably dramatic and serious, the current standoff between China and Vietnam is perhaps less dangerous than a similar crisis would be elsewhere in Asia. For starters, the two governments have close and relatively positive relations, a far cry from the enmity and poor communications that characterize Beijing’s current ties with Manila and Tokyo.
In addition, Vietnam is not a defense treaty ally of the United States, which removes the elements of adventurism, miscalculation and escalation that cast an ominous shadow over China’s maritime disputes with Japan and the Philippines. Vietnam itself, and then ASEAN as an institution, are likely to feature as the most prominent protagonists well before the United States plays an active and consequential role.
Still, this incident highlights two emergent features of China’s foreign policy behavior that are deeply troubling.
First, the Chinese Communist Party appears increasingly unable to reconcile predominant political and economic goals of securing its sovereignty aims while sustaining a peaceful regional security environment. There was considerable expectation (even if based more on aspiration than analysis) that President Xi Jinping would exact policies that more gracefully toed the line between these contradictory goals. These hopes were reinforced by his now famous speech on “peripheral diplomacy” in October 2013, which appeared to presage a return to China’s charm offensive that defined its approach to Southeast Asia in the mid-2000s.
But that hasn’t transpired, and instead we’ve seen China engage in bearish and clumsy actions that have raised concerns not just in Tokyo and Manila, but also Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and now Hanoi. At the end of the day, this means that domestic bureaucratic and political imperatives are overcoming the logic of strategy in Beijing, a dangerous development for outsiders hoping that relative costs and benefits (not politics and nationalism) will shape China’s decision-making on its territorial disputes.
Second, the oil rig incident means that we can finally stop talking about Chinese assertiveness as reactive, which was more appropriate two years ago when Japan’s “nationalization” of the Senkaku Islands and the Philippines use of a naval vessel at Scarborough Reef spurred China into action. At the time, Chinese officials were quick to point out that other countries had taken the first step. And the principal critique of China’s responses was that they were disproportionate and escalatory, but not necessarily unprovoked.
This excuse is no longer viable. Even though President Xi himself continues to assert that China is simply reacting to the provocations of others, this is now an empirical fallacy after the announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea last November and now this assertion of sovereignty against Vietnam. Rather than even waiting for pretexts to advance its sovereignty claims, China is now making first moves without provocation.
These two troubling elements paint the picture of a country whose foreign policy is untethered from strategic logic and increasingly engaging in preemptive revisionism. Not good news for peace and stability in maritime Asia.