If you were running China, and you wanted to distract your own population from economic woes at home by pushing one of your many territorial disputes with your neighbours into open conflict, which one would you choose?
Not Japan, even though most Chinese people really dislike and distrust Japan: it’s allied to the United States, and China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the US Navy. Not the Philippines, either, for the same reason. But Vietnam, a Communist state, is all alone with no allies. It’s perfect for the role, and it will play its part well.
Early this month, China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims the seabed rights. Vietnam sent ships to protest the move, China sent more ships to protect the rig – Hanoi accuses accused China of massing 80 vessels in the area, including warships – and the fun and games began: rammings, battles with water cannon, and a great deal of self-righteous indignation on both sides.
The Vietnamese regime has never been afraid to defy China: it even fought a border war with its giant neighbour to the north in 1979. This year, for the first time, Hanoi publicly commemorated a 1974 clash in which Chinese forces seized the Paracel Islands and killed forty sailors of the old South Vietnamese navy. By last week, there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Those were undoubtedly authorised by the Vietnamese regime, which keeps a tight hold on its population. What happened in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam on Tuesday was probably not. Official reports speak of three factories housing Chinese-owned businesses being set on fire on an industrial estate, but local reports talk of 19,000 workers rampaging through the estate and burning fifteen factories.
Hanoi doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, of course – it scares off much-needed foreign investment – but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out. Beijing should also be wary of this, if indeed it is really using its border disputes to stoke nationalist fervour in China. Nationalism is not a precision tool.
We can’t be sure that this is Beijing’s main motive, of course. Maybe it’s just a premature outburst of great-power arrogance that is driving China to push so hard on all its territorial disputes this year. But it’s certainly doing it.
Since January China has declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan. It has outraged the Philippines by starting to build an airstrip and/or naval base on Johnson Reef (ownership also in dispute) in the Spratly Islands. It has even provoked Indonesia into openly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea for the first time.
The area China claims, on the basis of its alleged sovereignty over the many uninhabited islands, islets, shoals and reefs scattered across the South China Sea, extends more than 750 km (500 miles) from its south coast. According to the “nine-dash line” drawn on Chinese maps which is the only graphic (but very imprecise) guide to Beijing’s claim, its control extends to around 50-75 km (30-50 miles) of the coasts of all the other littoral states.
China’s position would appear to be that you don’t need to prove your claim in the courts if you can enforce it on the ground (or rather, on the water). And indeed, the sheer number and range of unilateral Chinese initiatives in recent months suggest that the policy of the new ruling team in Beijing (which will be in power for the next ten years) is driven by full-spectrum bloody-mindedness.
However, the desirability of a foreign confrontation to distract the Chinese population from the recession that will probably soon hit the country’s economy cannot be far from the minds of the regime either. In either case, if there is shooting, it will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the United States.
Gwynne Dyer is an international journalist based in London