Fire in the South China Sea: What a Sino-Vietnamese War May Look Like

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First, let’s be clear: China and Vietnam are not about to go to war. But the current atmosphere of tensions, outlined by Beijing correspondent Austin Ramzy last week, leads one to wonder. On June 13, Vietnam conducted live-fire exercises off its coastal waters in the South China Sea. Vietnamese officials claimed the act had little to do with an escalating spat between Hanoi and Beijing over disputed, largely barren island chains in the sea, but it’s hard to construe the timing of the maneuvers as anything but a symbolic show of force against the looming Asian hegemon to the north. The Chinese, at least, were quick to upbraid Vietnam for saber-rattling — yet their own massive display of naval strength in the South China Sea this April hardly settled neighbors’ nerves.

Vietnam and China share close economic and political links, but old animosities linger. China claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, despite competing internationally-recognized claims from over half a dozen Southeast Asian states. The body of water and its reputed (though largely undiscovered) trove of natural resources is so politicized that it has rival names: in Vietnam, it’s known as the East Sea and, per a recent official communiqué, the authorities in Manila now see the Western Philippine Sea lapping against their country’s shores.

It’s in Vietnam, in particular, where the territorial dispute with China is acute and loaded with nationalist feeling. As Hanoi and Beijing square off, here are a few scenarios of what potential conflict would look like.

Low-level confrontation: The trigger for recent tensions was a Vietnamese report that Chinese fishing vessels had tangled with a Vietnamese oil survey ship and deliberately damaged its equipment. Thus far, hostilities get carried out largely by non-military proxies that both sides consider enemy agents, encouraged to interfere and commit sabotage against the other. The Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes, uninhabited island chains that China and Vietnam claim in whole — and other countries claim in part — are the site of frequent geo-political handbags played out between surveillance vessels and fishing fleets. Lean-to shacks set up on clusters of rocks become totems of state power; fishermen detained by rival coastguards become heroic martyrs for a national cause. An escalation of political tensions between China and Vietnam could see an increase of such confrontations, which could in turn bring both countries’ navies into play.

Naval skirmishes: China and Vietnam have fought twice over the South China Sea and in both situations it ended badly for the Vietnamese. In 1974, Chinese gunboats seized the Paracels, overwhelming a handful of South Vietnamese frigates stationed there. In 1988, the frontline moved south to the Johnson Reef of the Spratlys. Responding to the presence of a detachment of Chinese troops on one of these islands, a Vietnamese naval force rushed to reach the spot, but was met by Chinese warships. Some 70 Vietnamese sailors died in an exchange of fire that sunk Vietnamese troop transports carrying the expedition’s landing party. It’s a clash that still rankles many Vietnamese.

Back then, both countries had weak navies. But China, in particular, has set about becoming a naval behemoth. Its deep sea base on Hainan island clearly has dominance over the South China Sea in its sights, while its ever growing hi-tech submarine fleet targets neutralizing American global preeminence in the long term. For its part, Vietnam has not shrunk from the challenge, purchasing six submarines from the Russians while beefing up defense links with other regional powers like India. Moreover, the Vietnamese long ago buried the hatchet with the old enemy — the U.S. — and have won recent assurances that Washington also considers the South China Sea a strategic space of national interest. The last half of the 20th century in the Asia-Pacific was defined by a de facto Pax Americana, and it seems that the Vietnamese have need for the U.S.’s historical might to persevere.

American strength may be a deterrence in and of itself for a while, but if tensions get particularly hot, one may not rule out a strike akin to what transpired last year off the coast of the Koreas, where a North Korean submarine reportedly sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 48 sailors and plunging the peninsula into a tense showdown that eased only after months of back channel talks. It’d be a decidedly provocative act in the context of the South China Sea, but one that some angry bloggers in China apparently already desire.

Open war: In the extremely unlikely event that things get truly out of hand, one must worry for the Vietnamese — Beijing’s capabilities far outstrip that of Hanoi. Of course, in a region where a host of militaries are retooling in what seems to be a budding arms race, any conflagration here has implications for all of Asia. Still, for all of China’s clear superiority, the Vietnamese have history on their side. The bloody 1979 border war with the Chinese led to tens of thousands of deaths and was so chastening for Beijing that the People’s Liberation Army would be compelled to radically reorganize itself and modernize in the years to come. Here are pictures from that grim conflict, and a hope that we’ll never have to see such images again.

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