The spilling of blood and burning of factories by anti-Chinese rioters sweeping across Vietnam reinforces Beijing’s message to other countries claiming territory in the South China Sea: resistance is costly and ultimately futile.
But a region in which anti-Chinese sentiment grows and where sovereignty disputes disrupt trade and economic growth will burn Beijing as well. Over the long term, a commitment to peaceful dispute resolution in accordance with international law, including some concessions on historic claims, would serve China better than its current path.
China made the provocative first move in this latest incident by deploying a massive oil rig to the contested Paracel Islands. There was no doubt that Vietnam would respond, and China prepared by sending an armada of 80 ships — including seven naval vessels along with the rig. The two countries’ maritime forces are now locked in a standoff with aggressive and dangerous maneuvers, water canons and collisions at sea.
Deploying the oil rig allows Beijing to show that Vietnam is in a lose-lose situation when faced with Chinese aggression. If Hanoi ignores the Chinese move, it allows “new facts on the water” that will bolster China’s legal claims down the road. If it resists, its coast guard and navy will be dragged into a long and costly contest against a stronger force. And if the dispute continues to spark violent protests at home by angry Vietnamese nationalists, investment and international confidence gets disrupted for Vietnam — not China.