So, does China have the military prowess to back such a claim up with force if necessary? The Chinese Navy has certainly been developing, but likely still couldn’t do so if the US Navy decided to intervene. That said, the PLA Navy has built an enormous base on its southern Hainan Island, which places the fleet closer to the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese military has also been developing a new anti-ship ballistic missile, the Dong Feng 21D, that the PLA wants to equip with a manoeuvrable warhead that could hit an aircraft carrier or other moving target at a distance of 1500 kilometres. China’s military appears to believe that just having such a capacity will prompt the US Navy to stay clear of the South China Sea, Taiwan, or other disputed regions around China’s maritime periphery.
ASEAN countries, meanwhile, simply can’t hope to balance China’s militarily on their own, especially as they’ve shown little interest in pooling their limited resources and developing a collective military force.
Unlike South Korea, Japan or Australia, the South-east Asian states lack bilateral defence treaties with the United States, and their position is complicated further by extensive and mutually beneficial economic ties with Beijing that they don’t want to jeopardize by directly confronting China over its maritime claims.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But the effort spent on avoiding overt confrontation with Beijing shouldn’t be mistaken for lack of action—some ASEAN officials have been privately pressing Washington to intervene on the South China Sea issue to discourage Chinese adventurism.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has been as keen as any country in the region to work with its old foe, the United States, to balance the overwhelming Chinese colossus. And there’s a history of tensions between the two. The Vietnamese Navy battled the Chinese in the mid-1970s and late 1980s over the Paracel and Spratly island chains. More recently, Chinese authorities have declared unilateral fishing bans in the South China Sea and have seized Vietnamese fishing boats in the area, keeping their catches and equipment and releasing them only after they pay fines to the Chinese authorities. They’ve also been warning Western energy firms not to negotiate offshore drilling agreements with the Vietnamese government or their business interests in China would suffer.
Against this kind of backdrop, it’s likely no coincidence that Clinton made her remarks while in Hanoi. The US and Vietnamese navies subsequently conducted joint exercises that saw the first visit of a US aircraft carrier to a Vietnamese port since the Vietnam War ended 35 years ago, with the USS George Washington also hosting a Vietnamese military delegation while sailing in the disputed South China Sea off the Vietnamese port of Danang.