September 23, 2015
The risk of a military confrontation between China and Vietnam is rising. Although the two countries have enjoyed close party-to-party ties for decades, since 2011 they have both asserted conflicting claims to the South China Sea. Beijing claims 90 percent of the sea as its exclusive economic zone. China has repeatedly moved oil rigs into disputed areas, dredged and occupied parts of the disputed Paracel Islands, and constructed at least one and potentially multiple airstrips, possibly for military use, in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam has also tried to use oil explorations to claim disputed areas of the sea and reportedly has rammed Chinese vessels in disputed waters. Vietnam has cultivated close military ties to the United States, to other Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines, and to regional powers such as India, all to the consternation of China.
In addition, Vietnam and China increasingly compete for influence in mainland Southeast Asia, where Vietnam had dominated between the 1970s and late 2000s. China has become the largest aid donor and investor in many mainland Southeast Asian nations, as well as an important military partner to Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Rising nationalism in both Vietnam and China fuels this race for regional influence and makes it harder for leaders in each country to back down from any confrontation, whatever the initial genesis.
These growing sources of friction could lead to a serious military confrontation between the two countries in the next twelve to eighteen months, with potentially significant consequences for the United States. Accordingly, the United States should seek to defuse tensions and help avert a serious crisis.
For more on the chances of a China-Vietnam military clash, and how the United States could help prevent one, see my new Contingency Planning Memorandum.