Sino–Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea

Author: Justin Ho Cheng Lun, ANU

Analysis of the current disputes playing out in the South China Sea has focused on grand strategic balances and geopolitical interests.

While such analysis is important, domestic politics within the claimant states should not be downplayed or overlooked. With regard to the Sino–Vietnamese dispute over islands in the South China Sea, recent events clearly illustrate that nationalism and internal bureaucratic politics are key to understanding the escalating tensions between the two countries.

Chinese nationalism and irredentism have recently become a potent feature of China’s foreign policy. As China becomes a global superpower, its government and people see an increasing need for China to be more assertive in defending its sovereignty. This serves partly to rectify the grievances suffered by China during the ‘century of humiliation’ (from about 1949 onwards), when it was forced by Western powers to sign a series of unjust and humiliating treaties that led to the loss of many Chinese territories. On the South China Sea issue, such a ‘victimised’ mentality has been evident in calls by Chinese nationalists for Beijing to step up military deployments in the region, in order to send a message to other claimant states. It is clear that, if Chinese leaders do not cater to popular nationalist sentiment, the political regime itself could become the subject of criticism.

As in China, rising nationalism in Vietnam is exacerbating the potential for conflict. In fact, nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea dispute runs stronger in Vietnam than in any other claimant state. Last year, anti-China protests over the South China Sea went on for 12 consecutive weeks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City before the authorities decided to shut them down, lest the demonstrations turn against the government.

Vietnamese nationalism today is inextricably linked to anti-China sentiment and the South China Sea dispute. Whereas Chinese nationalism is focused on correcting past humiliations, Vietnamese nationalism is centred on its long history of resistance, particularly to China. A millennium of Chinese imperialism and the 1979 Sino–Vietnamese war have fostered a deep sense of mistrust and resentment among the Vietnamese toward China. Prominent Vietnamese political, military and intellectual figures have already called for the Vietnam Politburo to act more assertively toward China. If a military confrontation occurs, domestic pressure would likely compel Vietnamese leaders to stand up to China, despite the obvious difference in military strength.

Furthermore, Vietnamese leaders would be tempted to antagonise China in order to score political points at home during times of unstable domestic conditions. Former Republic of Vietnam president Nguyen Van Thieu, for example, sought to provoke a conflict with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in 1974 to rally nationalist sentiment and bolster his faltering political position.

Internal bureaucratic politics has led to unexpected and dangerous foreign policy consequences in the past. In 1988, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed after the Vietnamese forces sought to disrupt Chinese construction on the Spratly Islands. The Chinese navy sank three Vietnamese vessels, resulting in the deaths of 74 Vietnamese sailors — one of the most serious military confrontations ever seen in the South China Sea.

A major cause of this incident was the aggressive expansion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy during that time. Admiral Liu Huaqing, then commander of the PLA Navy, sought to modernise it, citing China’s need to assert its sovereignty over its far-flung maritime resources. In exchange for support from the military, the Chinese political leadership was willing to endorse operations in the South China Sea. Diplomatic objections by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were undermined, and the PLA Navy was able to escalate the dispute by dispatching warships to engage the Vietnamese navy in the South China Sea.

Today many other domestic actors in China, such as the Hainan provincial government and domestic law enforcement agencies, have taken up the cause of the South China Sea in defending Chinese maritime sovereignty against Vietnam and the Philippines. They are primarily motivated by the possibility of obtaining more budgetary resources from Beijing (as in the case of the South Sea Marine Surveillance and South Sea Fisheries) or obtaining revenues from exploiting resources in the South China Sea (as in the case of the Hainan provincial government). Rising nationalist sentiment and public scrutiny over the South China Sea are providing such groups an excellent platform for bureaucratic jostling for increased funding and political power.

With the growth in the number of domestic actors, stakeholders and institutions involved in the South China Sea dispute, domestic politics will become increasingly important in explaining tensions among claimant states. While great-power rivalry and regional geopolitical competition are certainly prevalent, internal variables such as nationalism and bureaucratic politics could, in the long run, lead claimant states onto a collision course in the South China Sea.

Justin Ho Cheng Lun is an honours student at the Department of International Relations, the Australian National University.