China has found itself involved in another dustup in the South China Sea, as their current amphibious assault rehearsals and live-fire maritime exercises in the region have drawn Vietnam's ire.
Vietnamese authorities, believing that China's presence in those waters violates their sovereignty, issued a statement demanding that the exercise be halted. On Tuesday, after Vietnam had already lodged their complaint, China's navy — the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) — took things a step further, beginning live-fire drills that involved at least 100 naval vessels and dozens of aircraft, and during which thousands of shells and dozens of missiles and torpedoes were fired.
Part of the problem, as far as Vietnam is concerned, is that they hold claim to the nearby Paracel Islands, and the surrounding waters. But their complaint doesn't hinge solely on contested waters, per se — though most of China's claimed islands and waters in the South China Sea are contested by one country or another. Rather, Vietnam is peeved because, on July 20, only two days before their exercise was to begin, China issued a statement declaring that no other vessels would be allowed in the area for the duration of their maneuvers.
Sending out warnings about impending military drills and shooing away civilian vessels is standard practice (and very good manners) in most situations. But when that no-go zone is extended into international waters or what you consider to be your territory, it's considered very rude indeed.
"The basic problem is China attempting to establish some level of ownership, and therefore control, over what the rest of the world sees as an international waterway," Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, told VICE News. "China has the same right as everyone else to hold naval exercises in international waters, but not to unilaterally declare parts of international waters closed to other countries' shipping while China is exercising. That is a precedent other countries cannot allow unless they are willing to accept Chinese ownership of the South China Sea."
Not only is China blocking what most believe to be international waterways, but at least a portion of the area makes up what Vietnam believes to be its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a sea zone over which Vietnam has special economic rights regarding exploration and use of marine resources. And this isn't the first time China has impinged on Vietnam's EEZ.
In May 2014, China parked a state-owned oil rig in Vietnam's claimed EEZ, resulting in riots across Vietnam as citizens responded to the perceived incursion by protesting Chinese-owned companies. At least 21 people died in the protests, and the US State Department condemned China's actions, calling them "provocative" in a statement.
China, however, insisted that they were operating in strictly Chinese waters, and that Vietnam violated China's sovereignty by sending a flotilla to disrupt China's actions. Though China pulled their rig out of the region only two months later, they gave no explanation for the removal, and in June of this year, they moved the rig closer to Vietnam's coast, though not quite so close as it was last year.
"[The Chinese] just reject flatly that the Vietnamese have any claims on these waters, and their position is, 'These people don't have any right to be upset with us over what we do in our water,'" Kelley Currie, a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, told VICE News. "So I think that when it comes to trying to 'diffuse tensions,' most of the effort tends to be on the Vietnamese side. The Chinese aren't going to bend or yield on these territorial claims in the South China Sea."
While tensions have grown between China and their neighbors in South East Asia, almost everyone involved has attempted to cozy up to the US. Chinese president Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the US in September, both Japan and the Philippines have treaty alliances with the US, and over the past several years, the relationship between the US and Vietnam has gone from fairly chilly to at least room temperature. The two countries started warming up to each other in the '90s, when diplomatic relations were initially restored, and they've continued to grow closer as relations with China have grown more tense.
Part of the appeal of a US-Vietnam friendship, at least for the Vietnamese, is the balance the relationship provides when set against the worsening relationship the state has with China. Also, experts believe that US intervention is necessary to lessen tensions in the South China Sea, as most of the smaller South East Asian nations don't have enough power to so much as give China pause.
"The United States has long said it remains neutral in the dispute and has essentially taken a pretty passive stance as to what's going on in the South China Sea," Michael Mazza, a research fellow with American Enterprise Institute, told VICE News. "I think the United States needs to, in conjunction with its allies and partners in the region, actually come down on at least what it believes are high seas versus territorial waters. And perhaps make some judgment on what are plausible claims and what are not. That can give the United States a baseline from which to act in the region to push back against particularly egregious Chinese behavior, or egregious behavior from others, in order to deter more aggressive activities."
Unlike most of its neighbors, though, Vietnam can stand up to China on its own, though it hasn't had a great deal of luck in affecting change in the larger country's behavior. Vietnam has a very capable military relative to the rest of South East Asia, and they've been working to grow their capabilities, stocking up on submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and anti-ship cruise missiles. Though their military does not yet reach a level where they can hold off China should a fight ensue, their growing capabilities do allow them to at least show China that, should they end up in a scuffle, China won't escape unscathed.
"The reason that you have things like Kilo subs from the Russians, or BrahMos missiles, or sub-launched ground-attack missiles is all of these things send a message to Beijing that, 'We can't win a fight, but we can give you a bloody nose,'" Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and Pacific Partners Initiative from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. "That changes the cost-benefit analysis for China. Clearly, it makes others like the Philippines seem the low-hanging fruit, so it puts a ceiling on the degree of provocations you'll see, I think, toward Vietnam. China doesn't want to provoke actual retaliation or aggression from Vietnam."
While it's impossible to predict what either country's next move will be, experts expect tensions to remain high for the foreseeable future, with China unlikely to moderate its behavior short of a US intervention.
Without any immediate setback or economic cost to China, Mazza said, they'll continue to do as they please. And while it's unlikely that they'll do anything to provoke a real military response, there are other concerns.
"I don't think we're in danger of a calculated move on China's part, which they know will bring about some sort of conflict. What I worry about is a misperception on China's part," Mazza told VICE News. "I worry about the cumulative effects of these sort of 'salami slices' reaching a point where the other countries say enough is enough, and China is surprised by the strength of the reaction. And I'm also worried about the potential for an accident at sea or in the air, which is heightened in a situation like this, and I would be worried about something like that escalating."
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