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Are China and Japan Heading for a South China Sea Showdown?

Japan is going to bat for South China Sea claimants and Vietnam is returning the favor, while the region grinds through ongoing territorial disputes.

by Ryan Faith
Nov 12 2015, 1:59pm

(Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images)

Vietnam has hosted two Asian heavyweights and rivals, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, back-to-back, in advance of several weeks of intense summits and meetings between heads of state.

For most Americans, November is the dark, lonely time between Halloween diabetes and Thanksgiving obesity. But for much of the world's diplomatic corps, it's like spring break. Granted, a very old, geriatric, C-SPAN version of spring break, but one that still involves a lot of intense, crazy, wild diplomacy nonetheless.

Next Sunday kicks off a week of various global summits, gabfests, and gossip, starting with the G20 on November 15 and 16, and continuing through the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, which runs from November 18 to 22 and coincides with the East Asia Summit (EAS) on November 21 and 22.

The G20 summit is where the heads of state for the world's top 20 economies meet. The ASEAN Summit will involve, basically, everyone around the South China Sea, except for China; affiliated meetings involve ASEAN plus China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Finally, the EAS will bring in all of the ASEAN folks plus surrounding powers like China, Russia, Australia, Japan, and the US.

And it looks like a major theme at all of this year's old-fart blowouts will be a perennial favorite: South China Sea territorial disputes.

By way of background, the South China Sea is a (largely submerged) bit of real estate worth some enormous amount of money (north of $5 trillion, depending on whose numbers you believe). Needless to say, with that much wealth on the line, countries bordering the South China Sea are making all kinds of confusing and conflicting territorial claims, like hardcore stoners facing a run on weed at a Phish concert.

Now, normally, this kind of thing might be solved by long, intricate, impenetrable discussions about who really had what whenever and why so-and-so should get priority over whatever. In the end, not much of anything really amazing would happen, but there would be lots and lots of talking, and maybe ordering some pizza.

Related: With a Few Words, Japan Escalates Its Standoff With China in the South China Sea

But as it happens, China is now trying to Bogart all of that sweet, sweet South China Sea goodness, which has gotten various folks rather bummed and has, indeed, buzz-killed quite a significant number of buzzes.

This would be one thing if it were like any sort of normal, lawyer-intensive blather-fest of a territorial claim. But the problem is that China is virtually trembling with 'roid rage, and word is that the other claimant nations would earn themselves a vicious beatdown if they told China to step off.

"For the Southeast Asian countries, the only way they win this thing, or at least the only way they don't get their rights completely trampled by China, is if they can multi-lateralize the South China Sea issue," said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He added that the countries need to come together in such a way "that it becomes not about Philippines versus China, or Vietnam versus China, but truly about being opposite 195 other countries."

Or, in other words, the only hope for all these little countries is to do this Voltron thing and basically take all their tiny little Southeast Asian nations and come together to form a giant Southeast Asian robot that can stand up to China.

Thus, when the Japan Times reported that Abe announced last Friday that he was going to be taking the South China Sea case to both the ASEAN and EAS summits and the G20, there was a great deal of rejoicing among various South China Sea claimants. Like a veritable call to arms for a multinational version of #OccupySouthChinaSea.

This story got a lot of play in the (still heavily state-influenced) Vietnamese media, which hints at something a bit more subtle going on here. A week ago, when Xi was in town to visit Hanoi, there were a great number of photo ops and announcements that China and Vietnam really wanted to avoid a fight, and that they were super intent on chatting and repairing their damaged relationship.

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Almost immediately after that, China's regional arch-enemy, Japan, showed up and had discussions with Vietnam about a port visit to the massive naval installation at Cam Ranh Bay.

Cam Ranh Bay opens right onto the South China Sea. During the US war in Vietnam, it was home to a major US base, and after Saigon fell, it became a major Soviet naval installation. Today, the airfield at Cam Ranh Bay is a departure point for Russian Tu-95 Bear nuclear-capable bombers and Il-78 tankers, aimed at regional targets, including major US bases like Guam. Vietnam is currently refurbishing the port to allow for international visits from many countries, including Russia, the US, and India.

Now, Vietnam and Japan have apparently inked an agreement to host visiting Japanese naval vessels at Cam Ranh Bay in 2016. The last time a Japanese warship made such a splash at Cam Ranh Bay was likely 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Navy was staging an invasion of Malaysia.

Interestingly, the Japanese were pretty much the last folks to wage war in Vietnam without getting their asses completely handed to them. Most of the remainder of the 20th century was spent kicking the asses of various foreign militaries. The First Indochina war was a loss by the French that earned them nearly 100,000 dead. The Second Indochina War (known as the Vietnam War in the US and the American War in Vietnam) earned the US and its foreign allies about 60,000 dead.

The Third Indochina War saw China attempt to invade in 1979, for a variety of reasons, including Vietnam's occupation of the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. The less-than-month long war killed tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides, earning China a spot alongside the US and France in the Hall of Fame of Countries That Got Their Butts Kicked by Vietnam in the 20th Century.

Which is all backdrop to the recent meetings between China and Vietnam where they made a lot of noise about making up and getting back together. Almost immediately thereafter, Vietnam talks with Japan about hosting Japanese naval ships and pushes Japanese diplomatic efforts to counter China in its local press. This is on top of the recent delivery of a Japanese patrol vessel to Vietnam, part of a larger six-ship deal.

If you put this in a broader context of Vietnamese behavior, Hanoi has been buying cruise missiles from India, submarines from Russia, patrol boats and maritime surveillance aircraft from the US, and now patrol vessels from Japan. That's not just the move of a country going to get armed; it's the move of a country that wants to build as many of the political ties that go along with arms deals as possible. This is, in turn, likely to be a hedge against China pushing hard on the territory both it and Vietnam claim.

Related: The Vietnam-India-Russia Military Ménage à Trois Leaves China in the Cold

Meanwhile, China is starting to arm Cambodia, which has had a complex and difficult relationship with Vietnam since 1977, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to put a halt to the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. That invasion marked the beginning a 14-year occupation (another one of the proximate causes of the war between China and Vietnam).

Today, an impoverished Cambodia is eager for all the help it can get, while China is happy to have some friends in the region. China already pours a ton of no-strings-attached money into Cambodia for infrastructure projects. But on the same day that Abe announced Japan was going to be talking South China Sea at all these diplomatic summits, the Chinese signed a deal providing Cambodia with new military aid in the form of air-defense systems — all part of the broader Chinese effort to modernize the Cambodian military.

So, to put it in cinematic terms, the relationship between China and Vietnam is like one of those situations you've seen in countless movies where two characters are sitting across from each other in a public place, like a diner. Even as they are smiling and chatting amiably, they are both unholstering their guns beneath the table, ever so delicately and quietly trying to turn off the safety, and getting their weapons ready like some sort of lethal insurance policy. Nobody is pulling any triggers quite yet, but the way things are going, it won't take very much at all to set off full-blown showdown in the South China Sea. 

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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