The Philippines is hopelessly mismatched against China in pure military
terms. But there are historical reasons why it won't back down in the South
Last month, I wrote a column forGlobal Times in
which I observed that a dominant Chinese Navy lets China’s leadership
deploy unarmed surveillance and law-enforcement vessels as it implements
policy in theongoing stand off at Scarborough Shoal. It can flourish a small, unprovocative seeming stick while holding the big stick – overwhelming naval
firepower, and thus the option of escalating – in reserve.
I wrote, translates into “virtual coercion and deterrence” vis-à-vis
lesser Asian powers. If weak states defy Beijing, they know what may
come next. Global Times readers
evidently interpreted this as my prophesying that Southeast Asian
states will despair at the hopeless military mismatch in the South China
Sea – and give in automatically and quickly during controversies like
so. Diplomacy and war are interactive enterprises. Both sides – not
just the strong – get a vote. Manila refuses to vote Beijing’s way.
supremacy is no guarantee of victory in wartime, let alone in peacetime
controversies. The strong boast advantages that bias the competition in
their favor. But the weak still have options. Manila can hope to offset
Beijing’s advantages, and it has every reason to try. Sounds familiar,
doesn’t it? China has been the weaker belligerent in every armed clash
since the 19th century Opium Wars. It nevertheless came out on top in
the most important struggles.
the weak can vanquish the strong is an idea with a long pedigree. Roman
dictator Quintus Fabius
fought Hannibal – one of history’s foremost masters of war – to a
standstill precisely by refusing to fight a decisive battle. Demurring
let Fabius – celebrated as “the Delayer” – marshal inexhaustible
resources and manpower against Carthaginian invaders waging war on
Fabius bided his time until an opportune moment. Then he struck.
sea power theorist Sir Julian Corbett advised naval commanders to wage
“active defense” in unfavorable circumstances. Commanders of an
outmatched fleet could play a Fabian waiting game, lurking near the
stronger enemy fleet yet declining battle. In the meantime they could
bring in reinforcements, seek alliances with friendly naval powers, or
deploy various stratagems to wear down the enemy’s strength. Ultimately
they might reverse the naval balance, letting them risk a sea fight –
through delay represents time-honored Chinese practice. Mao Zedong
built his concept of protracted war on stalling tactics, and, like
Corbett, he dubbed his strategic vision “active defense.” For both
theorists, active defense was about prolonging wars to outlast
temporarily superior opponents.
pointed out that China boasted innate advantages over the Japanese Army
that occupied Manchuria and much of China during the 1930s. It merely
needed time to convert latent power – abundant natural resources and
manpower in particular – into usable military power. Mao’s Red Army
later overcame stronger Nationalist forces by winning over popular
support, and with it the opportunity to tap resources,
establish base areas in the countryside, and the like.
Good things came to those who waited.
there’s some precedent for Philippine leaders to hope for diplomatic
success at Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine military is a trivial force
with little chance of winning a steel-on-steel fight. But like lesser
powers of the past, Manila can appeal to law, to justice, and to
powerful outsiders capable of tilting the balance its way. Sure enough,
Philippine officials have advocated submitting the dispute to the Law of
the Sea Tribunal and invoked a longstanding U.S.-Philippine mutual
all of this, the deck remains heavily stacked against Manila. Why
persevere in defying China, with its overwhelming physical might?
Thucydides would salute the Filipinos’ pluck. The Greek historian
chronicled the Peloponnesian War, the protracted 5th century BC struggle
between Athens and Sparta. One of Thucydides’ best-known precepts is
that “fear, honor, and interest” represent “three of the strongest
motives” driving societies’ actions.
one infamous episode, Athenian emissaries inform the leaders of Melos, a
small island state, that “the strong do as they will and the weak
suffer what they must” when their interests collide. They demand
submission. The Melians balk, but have no hope
of help from Sparta or any other rescuer. When they remain defiant
anyway, the Athenians put the men to the sword while enslaving the women
honor, and interest animate small states like Melos and the Philippines
as much as they do superpowers like Athens and China. Maritime claims
are a matter of self-interest for Filipinos. They are also a matter of
honor. Beijing can't expect Manila to simply tally up the balance of
forces, acknowledge it faces a hopeless mismatch, and buckle. Philippine
leaders can solicit foreign support, and they know Beijing has no
Why admit defeat prematurely, any more than Fabius or Mao did?
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
Nationalists are seeking leverage
for the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Japan
shouldn’t play into their hands.
By now the narrative is familiar: China, brandishing a sheaf of faded maps and
records, questions the basis of Japan’s
authority over islands in the East China Sea.
The dispute summons bitter memories of the Middle Kingdom’s humiliation at the
hands of its neighbor starting in the late 19th century, but also heightens
fears that Beijing
is abandoning its decade-old mantra of “peaceful rise” to become the
revisionist power its neighbors and Washington fear.
For the last year, this has been the
tale of the Senkaku
Islands, a remote cluster
of rocks whose only mammalian inhabitants are goats and an endangered race of
claim to the islets, which it calls Diaoyu, dates back at least four decades,
but tensions have heightened since the Japanese government announced last year
that it would purchase them from a private owner.
Just last week, however, Beijing opened up a new
front in the dispute. On Wednesday, China’s
leading state-run newspaper, thePeople’s Daily, ran a piece
questioning the status of Okinawa, home to 1.4 million Japanese citizens as
well as 25,000 U.S.
troops. Its authors, two scholars at a government-backed think tank, surveyed
the history of the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is easily the most
important, and concluded that the legitimacy of Japan’s rule over the chain is
“unresolved.” When pressed for comment, China’s
Foreign Ministry refused to affirm that the Ryukyus
are part of Japan, instead reiterating that “the Diaoyu Islands,”
which sit to Okinawa’s west, “are China’s inherent territory,” and
not part of the Ryukyus. This is hardly the first time that nationalists have attempted to sow doubt about Okinawa,
but never before have questions about Japanese sovereignty been entertained at
such a high level.
The Ryukyus arc from Kyushu, the
southernmost of Japan’s main
islands, towards Taiwan.
Most of their residents are indigenous Ryukyuans, a group of peoples who have
traditionally spoken their own Japonic languages and maintained political and
trade ties with both China
Even before the unification of Okinawa and
surrounding islands under a single king in the 15th century, the Ryukyuans were
tributaries of the Ming Dynasty. But after their king refused to help the
Japanese daimyo Hideyoshi invade Korea
in the 1590s, the islands were subjugated by a feudal lord from Kyushu. For almost three centuries, the islands’ kings
paid tribute to two masters, the shogun of Japan
and the emperor of China.
The arrival of Commodore Matthew
Perry and his “black ships” in the 1850s rocked Japan, but the new state that
emerged from this political turmoil was unified and assertive. In 1879, the
young Emperor Meiji, a modernizing reformer, formally absorbed the Ryukyus,
which became Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. China’s Qing Dynasty
ratified this action in 1895, but only under duress; the Treaty of Shimonoseki,
which ended the First Sino-Japanese War, not only provided that China would
abandon any claims to the Ryukyus, but signed away Taiwan and severed China’s
longstanding tributary relationship with Korea. (The treaty also helped set the stage for the Senkaku dispute, which turns
in part on whether those islets were part of Taiwan, and thus reverted to China
after 1945, or the Ryukyus.)
Okinawa was captured by Allied
troops in the final months of the Pacific War, but this victory came at such a
terrible cost that it may have influenced President
Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons rather than mount a
ground assault on Japan’s
home islands. When the American occupation of Japan
ended in 1952, the Treaty of San Francisco provided that Washington would
continue to administer the Ryukyus. Okinawa became a key pedestal of American
power in Asia, an idea that Commodore Perry
had championed a century earlier. The chain reverted to Japanese control in
1972, but the U.S. military
continues to maintain a constellation of bases on Okinawa under the terms of Washington’s security alliance with Tokyo.
The Ryukyuan people have a complex relationship with
their national government. Many resent the way the islands were used during the Pacific War
–in particular, the compulsory mass suicides ordered by Imperial officers during the
Allied invasion – and feel that they still bear a disproportionate burden for Japan’s
defense. One particular source of controversy is the location of U.S. Marine Corps Air
Station Futenma, today situated in an urban area near Okinawa’s
capital. While Washington and Tokyo long ago negotiated a plan to move the
base, a combination of local opposition and waffling by Japanese leaders has
delayed its implementation.
But none of this knotty history
casts any doubt on Japanese sovereignty. The islands’ residents remained
citizens of Japan throughout
the postwar U.S.
administration, and most welcomed the return of Japanese
control. In polls, a majority of Okinawans either identify
themselves as Japanese or adopt a dual identity, and independence advocates –
who, ironically, express solidarity with similar movements in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang – have fared poorly in local elections.
These facts are hardly news to Beijing. The questions
that state organs have raised are not part of a disinterested historical
inquiry (as the Foreign Ministry asserts), nor do they foreshadow a campaign to
claim the chain for China.
Rather, they are an attempt to broaden the Senkaku dispute, itself a pointed
challenge to Tokyo
and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Indeed, an unsigned editorial in Global Times has
already acknowledged as much, describing the issue as a source of “leverage,”
to be raised whenever Beijing is displeased with
Tokyo. “If Japan, binding itself with the U.S., tries to threaten China’s future,” the hawkish state-run paper
should seek to “impose threats on the country’s integrity” by backing Ryukyuan
Since last week, formal diplomatic
protests have ping-ponged between between Tokyo and
Beijing. Japan is
entitled to its outrage, but its leaders must recognize that an angry response
could play into the hands of Beijing’s
hawks. Facing two genuine independence movements and tied up in territorial
disputes with other neighbors from India to Southeast Asia, China in fact has much to lose from
pressing a theory that could embolden “splittists” at home and heighten
anxieties abroad. Emphasis on the Ryukyus’ antique tributary relationship with China is
particularly incendiary, given that many other Asian nations were similarly
tied to the Middle Kingdom at some point in history.
With even Chinese netizens mocking the People’s Daily for
overreaching, Japan has
nothing to gain from becoming ensnared in a debate over Okinawa.
By refusing to be goaded, Tokyo can deny China the leverage it seeks – and watch as Beijing suffers
Taylor Washburn is a lawyer studying
at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was previously
a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
He can be followed on Twitter @washburnt
Having gone unchallenged for
decades, and facing budget cuts, the U.S. Navy is in danger of losing
its capability to challenge the PLA in its near seas.
The Chinese navy's surface forces
are on the march. Destroyers, frigates, corvettes, fast-attack craft, and, most
recently, the newly commissioned aircraft carrier comprise the surface fleet.
Over the past two decades, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) has put
to sea four Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyers procured
along with ten new classes of indigenously built destroyers and frigates. Some
of the latter ship types have entered serial production, adding mass to the
fleet. This is an impressive feat by any standard.
The PLA Navy's metamorphosis
from a coastal defense force into a modern naval service has riveted the
attention of the U.S.
defense community. In 2009 the Office of Naval Intelligence — a body not known
for hyperbole — described the advances of China's surface fleet as
"remarkable." Similarly, the Pentagon's most recent annual
report on Chinese military power notes the "robust" buildup of PLA
Navy major combatants since 2008.
The Liaoning carrier understandably
captures the public imagination. But the true vanguard of the PLANavy's prowess
will be its surface combatants — the workhorses of any navy — that will
make China's turn to
the seas felt in maritime Asia and beyond. In
the coming years, these warships will serve as pickets guarding the carrier,
project power on their own in surface action groups, maintain a visible
presence in disputed waters, defend good order at sea in distant theaters, and
conduct naval diplomacy around the world.
Yet debate persists over this
metamorphosis. Skeptics doubt the PLA Navy will translate its growing material
heft into real combat effectiveness. One sanguine view holds that the U.S. Navy
surface fleet is more than a match for any rival in the contest for sea control
— the arbiter of any naval war — and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
The implication is that while Beijing may be
able to exact a price from the U.S. Navy for attempting to use the seas and
airspace in China's
environs, the United States
will still command the seas when the chips are down.
At the tactical level, this
comforting narrative holds that U.S.
naval forces remain able to land a devastating blow before opposing warships
get close enough to fire their first shot. In a fleet-on-fleet engagement, for
example, carrier-based warplanes would unleash missiles at enemy surface
combatants from standoff distances, meaning beyond the engagement range of the
opponent's anti-ship arsenal. This scenario conforms to the longstanding
American doctrinal preference for shooting the archer before the archer can let
fly his arrow.
This tactical and technological
margin of superiority will endure and perhaps even widen, so goes this
storyline, letting the U.S. Navy retain its dominant position in maritime Asia.
We're not so sure.
For one thing, China's surface
fleet is quickly catching up. Mariners are cementing core competencies while
closing the capability gap. For years, Chinese ships' lack of sophisticated
area-wide air defenses exposed them to air and missile attacks. This
shortcoming reaffirmed U.S.
commanders' conviction that carrier aviators would handily defeat the PLA Navy
in a fight. Now, however, near-state-of-the-art systems on board some Chinese
combatants outrange the anti-ship weaponry sported by U.S. aircraft.
The Luyang-class guided-missile destroyers are apparently equipped
with phased-array radars similar in appearance — and, according to Chinese
pundits, in capability — to the American Aegis combat system, a combination
radar, computer, and fire-control system that can detect and target multiple
aircraft simultaneously at long range.
At the same time, the PLA Navy has
armed its warships to the teeth with a family of Russian- and Chinese-made
anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) boasting ranges of 120-130 nautical miles.
The only comparable weapon in the U.S. inventory is the
nearly-four-decade-old Harpoon anti-ship missile, whose advertised striking
range is less than 70 nautical miles. In other words, major Chinese combatants
can not only keep U.S. aircraft at bay, but can also close in on the U.S. fleet
to unleash volleys of ASCMs outside the weapons range of U.S.
vessels. Not American but Chinese archers may now hold the initiative.
Thus both the defensive and
offensive sides of sea combat are stacking up in China's favor — progressively eroding the
tactical advantages of U.S.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether
the U.S. Navy's surface battle capacity has kept up with the times. Since
the Cold War, the navy has grown accustomed to operating in uncontested waters.
Indeed, directives from on high stated that no one was likely to dispute
American command of the sea. Owing to such strong bureaucratic signals, the
surface fleet has let the skills and hardware for striking at sea atrophy. Why
practice fighting for something no one can dispute?
Other missions have preoccupied
the service since the Cold War. Naval aviators have spent the past decade
supporting ground forces rather than girding to duel enemy armadas. Dropping
smart bombs on insurgents and terrorists in Iraq
demands different skill sets from evading enemy defenses and pummeling enemy
men-of-war. Meanwhile, guided-missile destroyers have been burdened with an
ever wider array of missions, including ballistic-missile defense (BMD).
Competing missions — some of which, like BMD, command national-level scrutiny —
siphon finite resources, crews' attention, and, equally important, physical
space aboard ship away from the combat function.
In effect, then, the service has
demoted war at sea, the raison d'être for any navy, to
secondary status. Both the hardware (weaponry, sensors, and hulls) and the
software (training and exercises) for sea control have doubtless suffered as a
result. In an era of tight budgetary constraints, reversing two decades of
steady decline in surface warfare will be neither easy nor quick. In short,
prevailing assumptions about American naval supremacy are coming under strain.
It would be a grievous mistake,
nonetheless, to concentrate wholly on the operational progress the PLA Navy
surface fleet has made or the tactical travails that could hold back the U.S.
Navy surface fleet. Competition is about more than just gee-whiz weaponry or
comparing entries in Jane's Fighting Ships. The only
meaningful standard by which to gauge a seagoing force's adequacy is its
ability to muster superior combat power at the decisive time, at the decisive
point on the nautical chart, against the strongest probable adversary. As a
great man once proclaimed, there is no substitute for victory.
It is far from clear that the United States
retains its accustomed supremacy by that unforgiving standard, any more than it
does in technological terms. For a variety of reasons — distance from the
theater, the consequent need for forward bases and logistics fleets, expensive
weaponry, salaries, and pensions — it costs the United States far more than
China to stage a unit of combat power at a given place in maritime Asia.
Whether the Pentagon can afford to mount superior strength in a rival great power's
backyard, whether the sea services are investing in the right people and
hardware to constitute that strength, and whether American seafarers have the
requisite skills to prevail when battle is joined are the only questions worth
That casts U.S.-China competition
in a whole new light, doesn't it? A purely fleet-on-fleet engagement is
improbable within the China
seas or the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
In those expanses, Beijing
has the luxury of throwing the combined weight of Chinese sea
power into a sea fight, dispatching not just its surface fleet but
missile-toting submarines and swarms of patrol craft. Furthermore, land-based
implements of sea power can strike a blow in any fleet action that takes place
within their combat radii. PLA Air Force warplanes can join the fray, as can
anti-ship missiles fielded by the PLA Second Artillery Corps. Lord Nelson, who
knew a thing or two about operating fleets under the shadow of shore-based
weaponry, sagely counseled that a ship's a fool to fight a fort. That's doubly
true today, when Fortress China
can reach scores or hundreds of miles out to sea.
One part of the U.S. Navy, then,
could conceivably confront the whole of China's maritime might. The U.S. sea services are dispersed throughout Asia and the world. To estimate the outcome of a fleet
action, we thus have to determine how the contingent the U.S. Navy is likely to
commit to battle — including its aerial and subsurface components, along with
any assets supplied by allies like the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force or
South Korean Navy — stacks up to the massed power of the PLA Navy fleet, backed
by the array of anti-access weaponry at PLA commanders' disposal. (This assumes
Chinese commanders do the smart thing in wartime and mass their fleets for
action.) If China's
navy outmatches the U.S.
or combined fleet contingent under such conditions, it is adequate to the tasks
entrusted to it by the political leadership. If not, the advantage resides with
the United States
and its allies.
The unenviable task before Washington, then, is to preserve or extend the margin of
superiority of part of its naval force over the whole maritime force, sea and
land, that's available to Beijing.
It's tough to pull off such a feat, especially under present circumstances.
Finances are straitened. Overall numbers are under stress as a result, as is
the military's capacity to innovate. To make ends meet, the U.S. Navy is
substituting light combatants such as the new Littoral Combat Ship for
multi-mission warships bristling with heavier firepower. To compound these
problems, the fleet finds itself outranged by its most likely antagonist. It
will be several years before a new anti-ship missile restores long-range
hitting power to the fleet, or until exotic armaments such as electromagnetic
rail guns or shipboard lasers augment the main battery.
From a grand-strategic standpoint,
the lag in weapons development could open a danger zone in which Beijing is tempted to
strike before its range advantage lapses. Imperial Japan
made a similar now-or-never calculation in 1904, realizing that rival Russia was
constructing new battlewagons for its Pacific squadron. It struck before St. Petersburg could
amass insuperable strength in Far Eastern waters. In 1941, likewise, Tokyo hit the U.S. Pacific Fleet before the entirely new
fleet being built under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 could arrive in the
theater and shift the naval balance against Japan. U.S.
and allied leaders must remain watchful, lest Beijing too succumb to the temptation to
settle disputes around its nautical periphery by force.
Are submarines the great
equalizer, a U.S. Navy game-changer akin to the "assassin's mace"
that so beguiles Chinese strategists? Many Westerners appear to think so. They
consider undersea warfare a talisman, assuming that the U.S. Navy can simply
dive beneath the waves and pummel the PLA Navy from below. Submariners voice
confidence in the superiority of American and allied boats over anything China has put
to sea. We see no reason to question the allies' qualitative superiority in
this sphere, and indeed we have depicted the subsurface fleet as a core
competitive advantage for the United
But while quality remains on the
allied side, numbers are more problematic. Yes, under the pivot to Asia, sixty
percent of the U.S. Navy’s 72-vessel
submarine force now calls the Pacific Ocean
home. But 18 of those 72 submarines are Ohio-class ballistic- or
cruise-missile boats (14 SSBNs, 4 SSGNs) meant for shore bombardment.
That leaves 54 attack submarines (SSNs) suitable for a tilt against the PLA
Navy, sixty percent (32-33 submarines) of which will be in the Pacific. That
may sound like a lot, but bear in mind that no unit is ready for service all of
the time. Routine upkeep, extended overhauls and refueling, crew rest, and
training all have claims on a vessel's schedule.
A hoary U.S. Navy axiom
holds that it takes three ships to keep one on foreign station. One is in
the shipyards and completely out of service, another is preparing for
deployment, and the third is actually oncruise. If anything, the 3:1 ratio
actually overstates the proportion of ships available for combat duty.
Even using this ratio, however, U.S. naval commanders can expect to
have 11 fully combat-ready subs at their disposal at any time. Assuming the
rhythm from overhaul to deployment holds up, another 11 may be available in
varying states of readiness.
Twenty-two SSNs, no matter how
good individually, is a slender force to cover the China seas and Western Pacific in
wartime. Theorist Julian S. Corbett advises commanders to
post vessels at the origin of an enemy fleet's voyage; at its destination, if
known; or at focal points such as straits where shipping has to congregate as
it passes from point A to point B. Otherwise it may be hard to make
contact. Monitoring Chinese seaports, along with narrow seas such as the Luzon Strait
and the passages through the Ryukyu Islands, will stretch the tactically
proficient but lean U.S.
submarine fleet. That in turn will leave broad operating grounds open to the
Undersea warfare, then, remains an
advantage, owing not just to American skill but to the PLA Navy's neglect
of antisubmarine warfare. But the U.S. Navy needs more mass — meaning more
boats — if it is to vanquish China's navy from the depths. Practitioners
and pundits err if they view the silent service as it currently stands as a
panacea. Doubling the submarine force would be a prudent move for Washington in its strategic competition with Beijing.
Where does all of this leave us?
It's commonplace among China-watchers to make the U.S. Navy the benchmark by
which to judge the PLA Navy's size and composition. This misleads. As
noted here, the proper yardstick is the navy's capacity to fulfill the goals
assigned to it by political leaders, in the expanses that matter, against the
strongest likely opponent. Beijing's immediate
goals and its likely opponents fall within reach of the abundant
shore-based armaments festooning Fortress China. Combining land- with
sea-based implements of marine combat yields a force far more formidable than
side-by-side comparisons of surface fleets would indicate. The PLA Navy, then,
may not need a surface fleet symmetrical with the U.S.Navy's — in terms of
flattops, air wings, destroyers, etc. — to get its job done.
Observers must apply standards
unique to China to determine
Navy has struck the right balance of capabilities. Comparing it to a
globe-spanning navy like America's
Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes
are professors of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, where Yoshihara occupies
the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies. The views
voiced here are theirs alone.
Since the establishment of the
People’s Republic of China,
Vietnam-China relations have gone through roughly four major phases.
The first phase, which ran from
1949 to 1978, was characterized by ideological comradeship, mutual trust and
support. China was a
steady and indispensable source of support for the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam (DRV) throughout both its war against the French, then against the United States and South Vietnam.
The second phase began with Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia
in 1978 and China’s border
war with Vietnam
in 1979, and ended in 1990. This period featured antagonism, war and mutual
The third phase began in 1991,
with the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries through
2007. The first few years of this period saw a rapid improvement in bilateral
relations based on ‘sixteen golden words’—friendly neighbours, total
cooperation, stable and long-term, future-oriented increased trade and
settlement of border disputes, mostly in favour of China. This spirit of
cooperation and renewed friendship was, however, weakened toward the latter
part of the period due to Vietnam’s
concern over China’s rise
and its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
The fourth phase, which began in
2008, pitched China’s
increasing assertiveness against Vietnam’s
efforts to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of
challenge. The future of Vietnam-China relations depends on the interaction
between two constants (geography and history) and two variables (China’s policy
and changing big powers’ relationship).
Geographically, Vietnam is a
small country living in the shadow of a huge neighbour. It’s normal for a big
country to seek influence over a smaller neighbour, just as it’s normal for a
small country to resist that effort to preserve its independence until they
reach a mutually satisfactory accommodation. In the past, when the two
countries shared the same ideological fervour and faced a common enemy—the
anticommunist ‘imperialists’—relations were close and solid. The end of the
Cold War, the collapse of European communism, the ascendancy of the
market economy and the force of global integration have weakened the special
ideological bond between China and Vietnam and have revived the perennial
problem of the big neighbour-small neighbour relationship, as well as Vietnam’s
strategic mistrust of China.
In 1990, feeling threatened by the
radical transformation in the communist world, Vietnam
sought a communist alliance with China against the threat of a
perceived Western-instigated ‘peaceful evolution.’ China
proposal for reconciliation, but rejected its request for an alliance. Failing
to secure an alliance with China,
Vietnam began to take
serious steps to reorient Vietnam’s
foreign policy toward its neighbouring countries and the West, and worked to
improve its international profile. The success of this policy has resulted in
the normalization of US-Vietnam relations, deepening Vietnam’s integration into
the ASEAN system, and its election as a non-permanent member of the
United Nations Security Council in 2008 and as the Chair of ASEAN in
If geography and history combine
to make Vietnam’s mistrust
an underlying factor in bilateral relations, Chinas’ actions since 2008 have
further reinforced this. On the one hand, China
accelerated its naval build up in the South China Sea, while Chinese web sites
began to publish ‘invasion plans’ against Vietnam. On the other hand, China began to warn foreign oil companies
against exploring for energy in area claimed by Vietnam
while allowing them to explore in area disputed by Vietnam.
More recently, in 2009, China
unilaterally imposed a fishing moratorium in the South China Sea, arrested
Vietnamese fishermen and made public its claim over 80 percent of the South
China Sea—a claim that seriously encroached upon Vietnam’s exclusive economic
zone. Vietnam reacted by encouraging Vietnamese fishing vessels to continue
fishing in disputed areas, purchasing arms to beef up its defences and, despite
China’s protests, multilateralizing the South China Sea dispute
and seeking the cooperation of other countries.
The US has made clear it doesn’t
share China’s views over its excessive territorial claim, and that it opposes
any attempt to intimidate US companies ‘engaging in legitimate economic
activity’ and interference with the free navigation in the South China Sea. China’s aggressive behavior thus speeds up the
process of US re-engagement
in Asia, including with Vietnam.
This new US determination emboldened countries including Vietnam to stand
up to China, as reflected at the Shangri-La dialogue in June 2010, the Fifth
East Asian Summit and the first ADMM-Plus in Hanoi in October 2010.
At the same time, US-Vietnam
military relations have improved markedly, beginning with the first
political-military dialogue in 2009 and followed by the first defence policy
dialogue in 2010. China’s
aggressive behavior in the South China Sea brought about a convergence of
strategic interests between
Vietnam and the United States and served as a driving force
behind Vietnam’s rapid
rapprochement with America
despite its fear of ‘peaceful evolution.’
All this said, Vietnam doesn’t want to antagonize China
unnecessarily. Ideologically, it’s more comfortable with China than with the United States. Economically, China is a
potential market, a source of financial assistance and a model of development.
The biggest obstacle to good relations between the two countries is their
conflicting claims over the South China Sea.
Vietnam has for its part declared that it
won’t make further concessions to China’s excessive demands. A
peaceful solution to this problem therefore depends heavily on China’s
restraint and magnanimity. If it can’t respond as hoped, China will simply drive Vietnam and other countries further away—and
into closer cooperation with the United States.
Hung Nguyen is an associate
professor of government and international relations at George Mason
death gives cause for Spratlys offensive: PLA general
PLA generals like Luo
Yuan see the death of Hung Shih-cheng as a chance for China to press home its objectives regarding Taiwan and the South China
Sea at the same time. (Photo/CNS)
General Luo Yuan, known
as one of the most outspoken senior officers in China's People's
Liberation Army, has said that the killing of Taiwanese fisherman Hung
Shih-cheng by the Philippine coast guard has given China an opportunity to
seize the eight islands currently held by Manila in the South China Sea,
according to the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po.
"Opening fire on a
Taiwanese fishing boat is not only a provocation to Taiwan, but to the entire Chinese
family," said Luo. "I don't know what law the Taiwanese fishing boat
violated for fishing in the overlapping exclusive economic zones instead of the
Luo also said the use of
lethal force against an unarmed fishing boat is a direct violation of the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The general also
questioned the account offered by the Philippine side regarding the incident,
saying he believes Manila
is trying to protect the officer who fired the fatal shot. Beijing
will need to come to Taiwan's
aid to force the Philippines
to apologize, Luo said.
There are four ways China can help Taiwan seek redress, the general
said. First, China,
as a member of the United Nations, is able to charge the Philippine at the
International Court of Justice. Second, a mechanism of cooperation between
fishery associations on either side of the Taiwan Strait
should be established immediately through consultation. Third, the coast guards
on either side should discuss a similar mechanism to patrol disputed waters.
Fourth, a mechanism to establish cross-strait military trust should be
If the Philippines continues to harass Taiwanese
fishing vessels, Luo said the PLA will launch an attack to recover an island in
the Spratlys held by the Philippines. The general China gained experience in dealing with the Philippines in the standoff over Scarborough Shoal last year.
Luo's suggestion is
unlikely to be taken up by Taiwan's
government. But President Ma Ying-jeou may find an uncomfortable ring of truth
in the words of Hung Feng-lien, the daughter of the 65-year-old fisherman who
died when the Philippine coast guard opened fire on Thursday. She said that it
is now safer for Taiwanese fishermen to fly the colors of the PRC flag rather
than the ROC when operating in or near disputed waters.