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.