The China-Vietnam Standoff: How Will It End?

The China-Vietnam Standoff: How Will It End?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Daniel Kliman:

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, 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 “” 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.

Daniel Kliman is a Senior Advisor with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), where his research focuses on Asia and the future of the rules-based international...
Ely Ratner is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is the author most recently of “Resident Power: Building a...
Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate...
Susan L. Shirk is the chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at UC San...
Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Thayer is a Southeast Asia regional specialist with special expertise...
Edward Friedman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has worked in rural China, co-authoring Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale...





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