08 May Confrontations Raise Stakes in South China Sea Vietnam Clashes With China Over Oil Rig; Philippines Detains Chinese Fishing Boat and Crew
BEIJING—A naval confrontation between China and Vietnam over Chinese attempts to anchor a giant oil rig in disputed waters is by far the most serious episode in recent years between the two historically entwined neighbors.
Unlike the Philippines, which has launched a simultaneous challenge to China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea by detaining a Chinese fishing boat and its crew, Vietnam has a potent military.
To be sure, the Vietnamese navy—much of it dating from the Soviet era—is no match for China’s modern fleets. As far back as 1974, Chinese forces were able to grab the Paracel Islands off Vietnam’s coast, and another skirmish in the area in 1988 led to the deaths of dozens of Vietnamese sailors. The two countries have the most extensive claims among the disputing parties to the South China Sea and its rich natural resources.
Yet Vietnam is a tough adversary, as French and later American forces in Indochina found out to their immense cost. In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody border war that ended with both sides claiming victory.
What makes this latest standoff so risky is rising nationalism on both sides. The Vietnamese government cannot be seen to be bowing to China. And modern Chinese leaders have staked much of their credibility in upholding their “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea—everything encompassed by a nine-dash line that loops down from the southern Chinese coast to the northern coast of Indonesia.