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, 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.


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.

What is most troublesome about the conflicts that have recently arisen out of the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas (between China and Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and now even Indonesia) is that they involve the issue of sovereignty. This is a serious matter because, for China at least, the question of "territorial integrity" brooks no compromise, which means that there is very limited room left for its diplomats to negotiate, much less compromise. This rigidity, which has deep historical roots, is fed by China's extreme sensitivity to issues which it views involving any blush of territorial encroachment.

One of the quite distinct elements of Party General Secretary Xi Jinping's new forward foreign policy is a posture that grows out of what might be called a "never again" Chinese attitude that arises from and important part of the "China dream,” namely that after more than a century of suffering incursion, quasi-colonialization, foreign occupation, "unequal treaties" and other forms of predation by stronger counties, now that China is strong, it should never again allow itself to compromise (especially under pressure from the "Great Powers") on questions of its territorial integrity.

But, as others in this discussion have already noted, to make matters even more intractable, China's new muscular posture in confronting its neighbors seems to have been indirectly, at least, encouraged by Putin's very aggressive, even belligerent, attitude towards regaining what he considers Russian rightful territory in the Ukraine. China and Russia have not signed any formal treaty. And the Chinese leadership is very ambivalent about any country’s unilaterally invading another (lest that give invitation for some outside power to intrude into the Tibet, Xinjiang or even Taiwan imbroglios). Still, there is little doubt that Chinese leaders feel a good deal of affinity with Putin's urge to stand up the arrogant West and Japan whenever possible.

Because of the West's sanctimonious and dismissive attitudes first towards the "Communist bloc" countries and then our condescending attitudes towards post-reform and “post-Perestroika" movements that ended up with latter-day Leninist authoritarian political systems in both Beijing and Moscow, there are significant reservoirs of historical resentment against countries belonging to what was quaintly known as "the free world" during the Cold War. While Chinese and Russian leaders have a wariness about each other that goes back to the earliest days of Sun Yat–sen's United Front with the Comintern and Mao Zedong's later reluctant subservience to the USSR as China's "socialist big brother," now they have come to share what we might characterize as a fraternity of a similar "victim kultur." The leaders of both nations see themselves as deeply aggrieved by both "the West" and Japan, and thus have a natural inclination to prove to the world, whenever they can, that they will not only no longer allow themselves to be hectored, bullied, pressured or pushed around, but will also not be deterred from consolidating what they view as their historical right to reconsolidate and regain lost territories.

Indeed, this may be the fault line on which a new kind of post-Cold War cold war begins to emerge. Such an alliance could be quite dangerous, not because Moscow and Beijing share so much actual concrete common interest (although they do have a 4,000 mile-long common border), but because they share a common and very deep wellspring of similar aggrieved national sentiment. And sometimes, it is such inchoate sentiment that proves more powerful and disruptive in world affairs than hard-nosed calculations real national interest.

We need to view China’s actions with clear eyes. Orville, I think it’s a mistake to distort our perceptions by drawing connections between how China behaves in Asia and how Russia behaves in Europe. The regional neighborhood in Asia is complicated enough without adding extraneous factors that may only be in our own minds.

What’s more salient is the point that Ely Ratner makes about how planting the huge oil rig off the Vietnamese coast, like the announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, shows that China is making peremptory first moves to assert its maritime sovereignty claims, not merely acting reactively. China is defending its actions by saying that dispatching its rig to start exploratory drilling is only a normal progression from the 2D and 3D seismic surveys it already did in this area. That is undoubtedly what the oil company, China National Offshore Oil Corporation or CNOOC, says to the decision-makers in Beijing. But given the contested nature of the location—15 miles off one of the southern Paracel Islands that China seized from Vietnam by force in 1974 and 120 miles off the main coast of Vietnam—and the large armada of 80 government ships that accompanied the massive rig—it’s certainly not business as usual.

The diplomats in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, especially Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who crafted China’s very successful strategy to reassure Asian countries about China’s friendly intentions during 1996-2009 and is trying to revive the strategy now under Xi Jinping, must be well aware that such high-profile assertions of sovereignty will provoke a backlash among China’s worried neighbors. When ASEAN meets next week, the Southeast Asian countries will certainly be pointing fingers at China, as Taylor Fravel predicts in his very informative Q & A with The New York Times. But the Foreign Ministry’s voice no longer dominates the foreign policy process.

What China’s actions reflect, as Ely Ratner says, is the very dangerous possibility that Chinese security policy has become “untethered from strategic logic.” In other words, domestic bureaucratic interest groups and nationalist public opinion are driving toward over-expansion of sovereignty claims in a manner that could actually harm China’s overall national security interests.

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?