On Thursday, news surfaced that a China-Vietnam defense meeting had been unexpectedly canceled, reportedly due to private disagreements over the South China Sea rather than the logistical issues publicly mentioned by Chinese defense industry. If true, this would be far from surprising given the past record of saber-rattling between Beijing and Hanoi. But more broadly, it should also serve as a warning to the international community that despite Chinese attempts to downplay the South China Sea issue, Beijing’s actions could quickly help escalate tensions once again for one reason or another.
The incident itself broke out as China and Vietnam were due to hold the fourth iteration of their border defense friendship exchange program, which was scheduled to be held in both countries June 20-22. Though the lead up to the engagement had been proceeding as scheduled, with Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Fan Changlong meeting with high-level Vietnamese officials and both sides talking up recent advances such as an agreement inked on personnel training, on June 21 Chinese defense ministry told state media that Fan had cut short his visit and Beijing had decided to cancel the meeting due to “working arrangements.” Other news outlets quickly speculated that it could be due to disagreements over the South China Sea.
If this is true, this is far from surprising. Sino-Vietnamese saber-rattling in the South China Sea is not new. Of the four Southeast Asian claimants – which also include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines – Vietnam has been in the South China Sea disputes the longest and has felt Chinese assertiveness the hardest, with Chinese troops seizing control of the Western Paracels from Hanoi as far back as 1974. For Vietnam, the disputes are just a slice of a centuries-old problem of managing its giant northern neighbor China, which occupied it for nearly 1,000 years from first century BC till tenth century AD.
Over the years, Vietnam has become by far the most militarily capable among the four claimants within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, along with the Philippines (until recently), has tended to be the most forward-leaning on the issue within the region. This is despite feeling the heat of occasional bouts of Chinese assertiveness, with a recent case in point being Beijing’s decision to place an oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the summer of 2014 which sparked a crisis in the bilateral relationship. Despite this, both sides have continued proceeding with some confidence-building measures, including in the defense realm with the annual border defense meeting.
This round of Sino-Vietnamese saber-rattling could well be the product of simmering tensions that eventually came to a head. With the weakening of the Philippines’ South China Sea position under President Rodrigo Duterte, Vietnam has essentially become the sole forward-leaning Southeast Asian claimant in the disputes (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). This has naturally impressed upon Hanoi the importance of strengthening ties with countries like the United States and Japan, and that exactly what it has been doing, even though Vietnamese officials have continued to carefully calibrate that with engagements with China as well (See: “US-Vietnam Relations Under Trump in the Spotlight with Premier Visit”).
But for China, which has sought to capitalize on the loss of ASEAN momentum on the South China Sea as well as what it perceives as a distracted United States, this is an opportune moment to put pressure on individual states – whether it be Vietnam as a claimant or Singapore as the ASEAN-China country coordinator – on their specific behavior and existing alignments under the guise of lowering tensions (See: “Beware the Illusion of China-ASEAN South China Sea Breakthroughs”). And ASEAN officials say that is exactly what some Chinese officials have been doing, even issuing warnings against so-called “unconstructive actions”. Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert, told Radio Free Asia that China had also been pressuring Vietnam to stop energy exploration activities in Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea.
These contending viewpoints between Beijing and Hanoi were bound to collide at some point. Thayer noted that tensions could flare up if not properly managed, with China reportedly deploying ships and aircraft to the area which increased the possibility of a military clash. But more broadly, for the rest of the international community, this episode should also serve as another warning that despite Chinese attempts to downplay the South China Sea issue, the very actions that Beijing is taking to allegedly deescalate the situation could once again help escalate it sooner than one might expect.
This is also consistent with a broader pattern in China’s South China Sea behavior which I have termed “incremental assertiveness,” where temporary bouts of charm or signs of calm from Beijing have been followed by yet another round of coercion (See: “Will China Change its South China Sea Approach?”). In the context of Sino-Vietnam relations, it is worth recalling that just seven months after unveiling a new strategy for ASEAN-China relations as part of a charm offensive in Southeast Asia that was received with great fanfare, Beijing moved the oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the summer of 2014. Though this incident is not nearly as serious as yet, it should give serious pause to those who are once again looking for the calm in the South China Sea that never quite sustains.