South China Sea crisis: Why China and Vietnam ‘will fight if they have to’



SOUTH CHINA SEA disputes have seen Asian countries furious with China for its aggressive actions in asserting its so-called Nine-Dash line claim, but one expert told that Vietnam is the country most likely to retaliate with force.

China and Vietnam have a long history of disputes and the troubled relationship is pock-marked with violence. Current disagreements focus on the oil and mineral rich waters and islands that make up the South China Sea, and is in one Asian geopolitics expert’s view, the most likely flashpoint. Professor Kerry Brown told “I think Vietnam are definitely the ones to watch, the Vietnamese forces are not a soft military and they are extremely aware of the threat that they feel from China.

“They are not going to be pushed back into a corner, compromise or lie down if they feel China is pushing against them they will hit back, and they will assert their interest.

“And that’s where you can see things escalating because these two are not easily going to retreat, they are too proud to do that, that’s the most problematic relationship I think.”

Hanoi has arguably shown more grit that any other nation in the region when defying Beijing’s actions.

Despite winning a UNCLOS United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal in 2016, the Philippines have failed to mount as significant a challenge to China as Vietnam have.

Now, Hanoi is flirting with the international law route themselves as they look to find a permanent resolution to the dispute.

Professor Brown continued”: “Vietnam is a really key issue because the Vietnamese are tough warriors, they fought off the Americans and also the Chinese in 1979 and again in 1985, so they are not to be taken lightly.

“The Vietnamese operate in a fairly large space in a similar way to China, which is one of Beijing’s main complaints.

“Other nations like Malaysia and the Philippines are not as problematic to China because they are more remote and not as formidable.

“But with China and Vietnam they have many years of being at each other’s throat, so this is the latest iteration of a long story.”

The Vietnamese defence budget has risen in recent years, and a recent standoff between the two countries proved how stubborn both nations can be when staking claims for parts of the sea.

Last month, a Chinese oil survey vessel – The Haiyang Dizhi 8 – had been embroiled in a tense standoff with Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, but left Hanoi-controlled waters after more than three months, marine data showed.

The Vietnamese also fought China in a deadly war in 1979 and, in 1988, a skirmish saw 64 Vietnam soldiers killed by Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army.

Despite the determination of both countries, Professor Brown of Chatham House highlights that violence is something neither side wants.

He added: “I don’t think they will undertake any military action unnecessarily, they are good warriors because they don’t fight battles they don’t need to, but they will fight battles if they have to, that’s the difference.

“The Vietnamese within living memory had a terrifying war with the US, so they are absolutely aware of how undesirable it would be to fight but they also have clear red lines.”

While both parties do everything they can to avoid more skirmishes, their equally dogged determination to assert authority in the South China Sea could risk tensions boiling over.