Bogdan Belei is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Tensions between China and Vietnam over the South China Sea are rising and a miscalculation or miscommunication risks an outbreak of hostilities. Earlier this month, satellite imagery revealed that China is constructing its third airstrip in the disputed Spratly Islands, an archipelago of 750 reefs, cays, and islands claimed—in whole or in part—by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. This news follows a tense summer, during which China deployed oil rigs in disputed waters and naval standoffs between China and Vietnam culminated in a ship ramming. Beijing’s construction establishes a permanent Chinese base in disputed waters, with airstrips that could be used to launch military missions against regional rivals. China has so far only used them to conduct surveillance missions, but this alone has increased tensions and resulted in political disagreements with the United States. As the intensity and frequency of disputes over territory in the South China Sea increase, the situation has the potential to escalate into militarized conflict.
In a new Center for Preventive Action (CPA) Contingency Planning Memorandum, “A China-Vietnam Military Clash,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, explores the conditions that could escalate tensions between China and Vietnam, and identifies recommendations for how the United States and involved parties could prevent or mitigate such a crisis.
For much of recent history, Vietnam has dominated mainland Southeast Asia while China has taken a less assertive approach. More recently, their roles have seemingly reversed. Economic growth has allowed China to develop its military capabilities, and subsequently expand its influence and maritime presence. Kurlantzick says that as the South China Sea has grown in perceived economic value, China has reemerged as a contender for land reclamation and disputed territory, claiming 90 percent of the sea as an exclusive economic zone. In order to exert dominance, China and Vietnam have both increased the quantity of naval vessels and military exercises with their strategic regional partners. The conflict has resulted in exchanges of fire across the China-Vietnam land border and sparked protests from diplomatic officials and nationalists.
On both land and sea, the potential for conflict escalation and miscalculation presents risks not only for the region, but also for the United States. Over $5 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea annually and the disruption of shipping in a region with few alternative routes would have negative consequences for the international economy. Additionally, conflict could disrupt the fragile relationship between China and a host of smaller states in East Asia. Paranoia and strategic ambitions may lead to an expanded regional arms race, further heightening the potential for military crisis. If U.S. regional allies that claim territory in the Spratly Islands, such as the Philippines, are drawn into the conflict, the United States would be required to uphold its mutual defense commitments.
In an effort to subdue tensions and prevent militarization of the conflict the South China Sea, Kurlantzick proposes several preventive U.S. policy recommendations:
• Strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to foster multilateral trust-building and mediation capabilities
• Make establishing a South China Sea code of conduct a priority of U.S. diplomacy
• Clarify U.S. defense commitments in the case of an unprovoked attack against the Philippines in the South China Sea
• Bolster the defense capabilities of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian partners to deter increasingly assertive Chinese activities
• Minimize U.S. involvement in any China-Vietnam land border conflict by limiting future U.S.-Vietnam joint exercises to naval exercises and air exercises in the South China Sea
For a more in-depth analysis of the fragile relationship and what conflict escalation could mean for the United States, read Joshua Kurlantzick’s report, “A China-Vietnam Military Clash.”