Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

If simmering tensions erupt into full-blown conflict in the South China Sea, increasingly it seems the first shots to be fired would be between China and Vietnam.

The two rival sea claimants have been locked in a weeks-long standoff over the energy-rich Vanguard Bank, with neither side apparently ready to back down. While China opposes any rival claimants’ move to develop energy resources in contested sea areas, the current confrontation with Vietnam may serve a dual strategic purpose.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND corporation, a Washington-based think tank, has argued that if China was to launch a military offensive in the South China Sea, its most likely choice of combatant would be Vietnam.

Vietnam is Beijing’s “preferred warm-up fight,” he wrote earlier this year before the Vanguard Bank standoff, reasoning it is “a middle-sized power that should be easily defeatable” by the Chinese military.

Although conflict is still unlikely, Beijing is again ramping up its aggression and “gunboat diplomacy” by pressuring Hanoi to end its exploration for oil and gas in the contested waters.

In July, a Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, along with an armed flotilla, spent weeks sailing near the Vanguard Bank, a maritime area well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In mid-August, after it seemed the survey ship had returned to China, it reappeared in Vietnamese waters where local and Russian energy firms are jointly exploring for oil.

Vanguard Bank area circled in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Last year, similar pressure from China forced Hanoi to cancel a US$200 million oil exploration contract it had entered with Spanish energy firm Repsol. China claims almost 90% of the South China Sea through its so-called nine-dash line map, a wide-reaching demarcation which was rejected by an arbitral tribunal at The Hague in July 2016.

The BBC’s Vietnamese service reported on September 3 that the deep-water crane Lam Kihn was moved by state-owned China Oil and Gas Group into Vietnamese waters, a move that will inevitably heighten tensions.

If true, China and Vietnam could be in for a repeat of their volatile 2014 standoff, when the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation moved its semi-submersible Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig and fishing militia into waters claimed by Vietnam near the Spratly Islands.

China’s alleged move of the Lam Kihn crane into Vietnamese waters comes as Vietnam and the nine other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) take part this week in inaugural maritime naval exercises with the United States.

It also comes just a month before Vietnamese President and Communist Party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, is expected to make a high-profile state visit to Washington, at which the US and Vietnam could upgrade their relations to a “strategic partnership.”

Chinese and Vietnamese forces last came to blows in 1988 during a skirmish around the South China Sea’s Johnson South Reef, a clash that killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers. That followed on a brief but bloody border war in 1979 where both sides lost thousands of soldiers.

Times have changed since those previous short-lived conflicts. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now one of the world’s largest and most well-equipped militaries. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the PLA “to be fully transformed into world-class forces” by 2050. Yet there is believed to be deep insecurity in Beijing about how prepared the military is to fight a large-scale conflict.

Xi has spoken about the PLA suffering from “peace disease” because they haven’t been in an actual conflict situation for decades. Given the turnaround of senior officials since the last real conflict in 1979, most have never been in a war.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Dennis Blasko, a noted observer of the Chinese military, argued in February that despite the considerable investment in weaponry and technology, and massive structural reforms, there remains “a lack of confidence in PLA capabilities and a failure of the PLA’s educational and training systems to prepare commanders and staff officers for future war.”

“Therefore,” he added, “the senior Chinese military leadership demonstrates little or no enthusiasm to commit the PLA to actual combat against a modern foe, preferring to achieve China’s national objectives through deterrence and actions short of war conducted by a combination of civilian, government, paramilitary, and military forces.”

This insecurity will factor into who China sees as a viable opponent. Fighting India on land and high in the Himalayas “does the PLA little good” to prepare for air and naval warfare, Grossman wrote. Conflict in the Korean peninsula would likely be far too violent and close to home.

Fighting against Japan, the Philippines or South Korea would probably involve the American military, as each have security alliances with the US. The Taiwan Relations Act commits Washington to coming to Taiwan’s defense in the event of Chinese military aggression.

Beijing would “prefer a conflict that is winnable” and “Vietnam is fundamentally incapable of sustaining operations on par with China due to shortfalls in capabilities, training, and manpower,” Grossman has argued.

Less academic analysis has gone into how the Vietnam People’s Army’s (VPA) sees its own position. Hanoi tends to be more secretive than Beijing while its academic circles are even more hermetic. The Ministry of National Defence published its last defense “white paper” a decade ago, to mark the 65th anniversary of the VPA’s foundation.

Analysts agree, however, that Hanoi is taking military matters increasingly seriously as tensions in the South China Sea escalate year by year.

Businesswire reported in April that Vietnam’s government earmarked US$5.1 billion for military expenditure in this year’s budget, about a third of which will go towards defense equipment procurements. Some analysts estimate that Hanoi’s military spending could rise to $7.9 billion by 2024.

There are also certain signs of concern about the military’s readiness – and the need to do more. In June, the National Defense Journal, run by Vietnam’s Defense Ministry, published an essay on the military’s training and human resources.

Performers dance with large national flags marking an anniversary of Vietnam’s communist regime in Hanoi, February 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

“The training of cadres in the military is not even and balanced; content and training programs are still slow to innovate; the update of new military knowledge and technology in training is not higher,” it warned.
Clearly, Vietnam has a much weaker military than China’s.

Vietnam spends about $5 billion a year on its military; China spends $220 billion. China has five times the number of active personnel as Vietnam, and has ten times the number of aircraft (3,187 to 318) and almost 11 times as many naval vessels (714 to 65). China also has much better equipment; the People’s Liberation Army Navy has aircraft carriers and destroyers, assets Vietnam lacks.

Most analysts reckon that, given this asymmetry, Vietnam’s only strategic choice would be defensive in the event of a conflict. Still, there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on this in Hanoi.

In an article for the National Defense Journal published on August 30, Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung – who is also a major-general in the VPA and a former chairman of Viettel, a military-owned conglomerate – wrote that “in the future, if war happens to our country, it will be a people’s war to protect a developed country against the enemy’s aggression.”

However, he noted that “in the wars against our ancestors before, and our Party later, our nation often faced enemies with outstanding military power and strength, but we took the offensiveness as the dominant ideology, instead of passiveness or passive defense,” he wrote.

“Offensive thoughts,” he added, creates unity amongst the people, and a belief that they won’t surrender regardless of how strong the enemy is. He, however, also used the phrase “phòng ngự tích cực”, which is similar to the Chinese concept of an “active defense” or “positive defense” – a term used in the 1980s by then-leader Deng Xiaoping to mean strategically defensive but operationally offensive.

A Vietnamese soldier stands watch overlooking the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

This would certainly suggest that senior Vietnamese Communist Party officials are seriously weighing the possibility of war, and how it might be waged. It is thus probably not a coincidence that the Communist Party has given newspapers more leeway to write about this year’s anniversary of Vietnam-China border wars.

Reports from earlier this year suggest that Vietnam has been quietly expanding its maritime militia and arming more of its coast guard in preparation of even more aggressive tactics by China’s equivalents.

Given the military mismatch, Vietnam’s greatest deterrence would likely come through international partnerships. And Hanoi has been busy making new friends. For instance, Vietnam agreed last month to expand defense ties with South Africa, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reaffirmed their military cooperation during an anticipated visit to Hanoi.

Vietnam has also signed new defense agreements with the European Union and Japan this year. Most important, however, would be if Hanoi could win more strategic assurances from its former battlefield foe the US.

Much thus hangs on Trong’s upcoming visit to Washington. While mostly facile – US relations with Vietnam are far better than the semantics would belie – it would send a stronger signal that America is backing Vietnam, and serve as a long-term deterrent to China, if the two sides agreed to upgrade their strategic relations.

It will almost certainly stop short of a defense pact, since the Vietnamese Communist Party’s internal rules – the so-called “Three No’s” – forbid it from signing military pacts with other nations. However, an ungraded partnership could allow for more US naval vessel visits to Vietnam – something that Washington wants – and perhaps a commitment from Hanoi to purchase more military hardware from the US.

Vietnam currently buys about four-fifths of its military equipment from Russia and a tenth from Israel. In return for more purchases, Washington may offer clarity over whether Vietnam will be sanctioned over the prolix Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which can sanction nations that purchase weapons from Russia.

US President Donald Trump (L) speaks with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency

Vietnam has been temporarily exempted from CAATSA, and former secretary of defense James Mattis had sought a waiver for Vietnam. But to make the exemption more permanent Hanoi must show that it is reducing its dependency on Russian military imports.

Also by purchasing more American military hardware, Vietnam would reduce its considerable trade surplus with the US, something known to irk the Donald Trump administration.

Washington has certainly been firm against Beijing’s latest actions in the South China Sea, which the State Department described as “coercive interference in Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities.” The State Department also noted last month that China is trying to block access “to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources” in the South China Sea’s waters.

The US Defense Department, meanwhile, highlighted in a report last year that China is the world’s second largest consumer of crude oil and the third largest country consumer of natural gas. Moreover, its reliance on imported gas, which accounted for 67% of its needs in 2017, could grow to 80% by 2035, therefore raising the importance of untapped resources in the South China Sea.

The US will need to show that it is serious about ensuring Vietnam’s security vis-a-vis China. Hanoi no doubt remembers that then US president Barack Obama declined to defend a treaty ally when China seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. Neither did Obama provide any support to Vietnam during the 2014 Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff.

Trump has continued largely in the same vein, making stern statements but not backed by action when China successfully forced Vietnam to cancel oil exploration deals last year and in 2017 in contested South China Sea areas.

China’s pressing maneuvers near the Vanguard Bank, and its alleged moving of a crane into Vietnamese waters, are arguably now more dangerous as its vessels now have access to new naval and air facilities on artificial features it has developed in the sea.

A satellite image of the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Photo: Planet Labs

This means that vessels no longer need to return to mainland China for refueling and maintenance during journeys into the South China Sea. It also means they can patrol much closer to the Vietnamese coastline and for longer periods of time.

China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 now faced off with Vietnamese vessels at Vanguard Bank reportedly went to a new naval base established on the nearby Fiery Cross Reef, not the Chinese mainland, to refuel before returning to the contested feature.

If the standoff with Vietnam escalates into an armed confrontation, it could provide China a test case of its readiness for a possible bigger fight in the contested sea in the years to come.

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