International media coverage of the confrontation between China and Vietnam over Beijing’s placement of a mega oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam has dried up with the passage of time. But daily confrontations continue. The present situation is not a standoff but a determined effort by China to alter the status quo by pushing the Vietnamese Coast Guard and Fishery Surveillance Forces back beyond China’s self-proclaimed nine-dash line.
Vietnamese government sources express concern that China will move the oil rig closer to Vietnam than its original placement. They worry about where it will be placed because, these sources argue, neither China nor Vietnam knows precisely where the nine-dash line is located.
Media coverage of Chinese Coast Guard ships using water cannons to douse Vietnamese boats and Chinese ships ramming Vietnamese maritime enforcement vessels made for good visual news clips but fell far short of serious analysis. China is engaged in an unequal “war of attrition” with Vietnam. China’s tactics of ramming Vietnamese vessels two to four times lighter in weight is designed to damage them sufficiently to require repair.
Some Vietnamese analysts speculate that if the current rate of damage continues, Vietnam may not have enough vessels to confront China in the waters surrounding the rig.
According to the Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff of Vietnam’s Marine Policy (Coast Guard) Ngo Ngoc Thu, on May 3 China’s Coast Guard Ship No. 44044 smashed into the side of Vietnam Marine Police vessel No. 4033 leaving a crack three meters by 1 meter and completely damaging the vessel’s right engine. Thu gave details of other damage suffered by Vietnamese vessels.
Recent research by Scott Bentley has revealed that China is deliberately targeting the communications masts and antennae of Vietnamese vessels with its water cannons. YouTube clips clearly show these communications masts being forcibly blown off the bridges of Vietnamese vessels. This degrades their ability to communicate with other ships and thus forces them to return to port for repairs.
Further, China-Vietnam confrontations are deadly serious. According to Scott Bentley, most of China’s Coast Guard ships are now armed with naval guns. Both Chinese Coast Guard ships and People’s Liberation Army Navy frigates have manned their uncovered guns and deliberately targeted Vietnamese vessels during the current confrontation.
What has been Vietnam’s response to these aggressive assertions of maritime power by China? What is Vietnam’s strategy for resisting Chinese coercion?
Vietnam is maintaining a continuous presence on the outer perimeter of the Chinese armada surrounding the oil rig. Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels broadcast daily reassertions of Vietnamese sovereignty and call on the Chinese to withdraw from Vietnamese waters. According to Scott Bentley, Vietnam as been extremely careful to keep its light weapons under wraps, clearly signaling that Vietnam is adopting a non-aggressive posture.
Vietnam has also kept its Navy warships and submarines in port or well away from the area of the current confrontation. Vietnamese officials have repeatedly called for discussions with China. They have suggested the activation of the hot line between high-level leaders and they have requested that China receive Nguyen Phu Trong, the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party. Vietnam’s foreign minister has spoken by phone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. And Vietnam’s defense minister General Phung Quang Thanh met briefly with his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Chang Wanquan, on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Nay Pyi Taw.
China has rebuffed all Vietnamese approaches and personal encounters have been frosty.
Vietnam’s initial attempt to proffer a conciliatory stance was set back by anti-China protests by Vietnamese workers in industrial states that unexpectedly turned violent and targeted Chinese factories and Chinese workers. Vietnamese government and security officials quickly restored law and order and arrested a large number of workers held responsible for the violence. China dispatched several ships and aircraft to evacuate several thousands workers. As of this writing, Vietnamese courts are handing down prison sentences to the instigators.
Vietnam’s response to the oil rig crisis has included diplomatic overtures to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and pleas for support from the international community. In a new wrinkle, Vietnam is also mulling unspecified legal action against China. This could take the form of an independent legal initiative or Vietnamese support for the Philippines at the Arbitral Tribunal now in session.
According to private exchanges with several Vietnamese government officials and security specialists, Vietnam is also drawing up a longer-term strategy to deter China from similar acts of aggression in the future. The discussion below attempts to capture some of the ideas being bandied about, which are not yet part of any officially approved Vietnamese government policy.
The core of Vietnam’s emerging strategy is to avoid confronting China directly in an attempt to force it to remove the oil rig and naval ships from Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Rather, Vietnamese strategists seek to deter China from similar actions in the future.
At the moment Vietnam appears to be considering two strategies to deter China – leveraging United States alliance relationships with Japan and the Philippines and, in the case of armed hostilities, “mutually assured destruction.” Vietnamese officials stress in private that all activities carried out under any new strategy would be completely transparent to minimize miscalculation by China.
The prime aim of Vietnam’s newly emerging strategy is not to confront China but to deter it by creating circumstance where China would have to accept the status quo or escalate. This would entail risks for China because Vietnamese forces would be operating alongside two United States allies in peaceful pursuits.
Prior to the oil rig crisis Vietnam proposed a trilateral security dialogue with the United States and Japan. This appears to have received a cautious response from Japan but it is still on the table. In present circumstances a trilateral arrangement could serve as a venue for working out a multilateral strategy to deter China.
Vietnam has approached Japan and the Philippines in an effort to step up interaction with their maritime forces, including both Coast Guard and Navy. Vietnam hopes to conduct joint training and other maritime exercises, including joint patrols, in the South China Sea. These exercises would take place well away from the current site of tensions. They would be conducted on the high seas and in Vietnam’s EEZ transversing China’s nine-dash line.
Vietnam is also considering reaching out the United States. One proposal is to expedite the agreement for cooperation between their Coast Guards. The U.S. Coast Guard could be deployed to Vietnamese waters for joint training. Each party could exchange observers.
Vietnam recently joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. This could provide an opportunity for the United States to assist Vietnam in developing the capacity to conduct surveillance of its maritime zone of responsibility. In the past Vietnam has expressed interest in purchasing U.S. maritime surveillance aircraft. The United States could deploy a model of the aircraft that Vietnam is considering to Vietnam and conduct demonstration flights with Vietnamese military personnel on board.
In addition, unarmed U.S. Navy maritime surveillance aircraft based in the Philippines under the recent agreement on enhanced defense cooperation could be deployed to Vietnam on a temporary basis. They could conduct joint maritime surveillance missions with their Vietnamese counterparts. U.S. military personnel could fly on Vietnamese reconnaissance planes as observers, and vice versa.
Vietnamese officials and analysts expect China to mount aggressive naval displays in the South China Sea every year from May to August. This provides an opportunity for the United States and Japan to organize a series of continuing naval exercises and maritime surveillance flights with Vietnam just prior to the arrival of Chinese forces and throughout the period from May to August. The details of all operations would be completely transparent to all regional states, including China.
Vietnam’s indirect strategy provides the means for the United States to give practical expression to its declaratory policy of opposing the use of intimidation and coercion to settle territorial disputes. Vietnam’s indirect strategy does not require the U.S. to directly confront China. Vietnam’s strategy puts the onus on China to decide whether or not to shoulder the risk of attacking mixed formations of Vietnamese naval vessels and aircraft operating in conjunction with American allies, the Philippines and Japan, or U.S. military personnel.
These naval and air forces would be operating in international waters and airspace. The objective is to maintain a continuous naval and air presence to deter China from using intimidation and coercion against Vietnam. Deterrence could be promoted by interchanging the naval and aircrews in all exercises. The scope and intensity of these exercises could be altered in response to the level of tensions.
Vietnam’s second possible strategy of deterrence, “mutually assured destruction,” applies only to a situation where relations between China and Vietnam have deteriorated to the point of armed conflict. Vietnamese strategists argue that the aim of this strategy is not to defeat China but to inflict sufficient damage and psychological uncertainty to cause Lloyd’s insurance rates to skyrocket and for foreign investors to panic and take flight.
Under this strategy, if armed conflict broke out, Vietnam would give priority to targeting Chinese flagged merchant shipping and oil containers ships operating in the southern extremity of the South China Sea. Vietnam currently possesses coastal ballistic missiles that are in range of China’s naval bases on Hainan and Woody islands.
Some Vietnamese strategists also argue that Vietnam should quickly acquire large numbers of ballistic missiles capable of striking Shanghai and even Hong Kong. In the event of armed conflict, these and other cities could be targeted to cause massive disruption to China’s economy. This would have a global impact. Vietnamese strategists expect that major powers would intervene to counter China’s aggression.
Vietnam consideration of a new strategy of indirection is an indication that Vietnamese officials and strategists view current tensions as part of a longer-term strategy by China to assert its dominance not only over the South China Sea but also the East China Sea. The appeal of a transparent non-aggressive strategy of indirection is that it offers Japan, the Philippines and the United States a means of deterring China from its present course.