May 31, 2014

Beijing may call Hanoi's bluff and start war: Duowei

Vietnam is taking a big gamble by inflaming its territorial dispute with China as Beijing could very well consider starting a war, reports Duowei News, an outlet run by overseas Chinese.
More than 7,000 Chinese citizens have already been evacuated from Vietnam since anti-China riots broke out as a result of a standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese naval ships near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on May 4. Reports say at least 25 people have died during the riots, which targeted Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong factories across the country, with many forced to shut down due to damage and fires.

Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung has since sent out three mass text messages to citizens urging them not to participate in further protests, but only after widespread accusations that his government tacitly encouraged them in the first place.Vietnam's diplomatic efforts to garner support against China's oil rig have not stopped. Vietnam first compelled ASEAN to release a statement condemning China on May 10, with Le Luong Minh, the secretary-general of ASEAN and a Vietnamese national, adding to the criticism on May 16. Vietnam's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, spoke with US secretary of state John Kerry on May 19, then visited Japan on May 21, on the same day prime minister Dung sought the views of the Philippines over the dispute. Minh will soon visit the United States, while Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida will visit Vietnam.

Beijing's South China Sea policy has traditionally been hard on the Philippines and soft on Vietnam due to the latter's reliance on the Chinese economy. Bilateral relations appeared to be on the way up after Chinese president Xi Jinping was appointed last March, with the countries signing an agreement on how to handle maritime issues in June 2013. In October, Chinese premier Li Keqiang visited Hanoi and set up development, infrastructure and financial working groups. For nine consecutive years since 2004, China has been Vietnam's largest trade partner.

However, the recent anti-China protests and efforts to team up with the US, Japan and the Philippines against China indicates a major change in attitude by Vietnam, says Duowei, meaning China must come up with new strategies and avenues to resolve the dilemma.Beijing has been equally unwilling to cede ground in the dispute, repeatedly blaming the Vietnamese government for condoning the riots and calling for severe punishment during foreign ministry press conferences.Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan has warned Vietnam not to make repeated mistakes and to look at the bigger picture of Sino-Vietnamese friendship. During a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh last week, Chang condemned Vietnam's recent disruption of China's "routine" and "legitimate" oil drilling and called on Hanoi to "respect history" and "face reality."

In a visit to the United States earlier this month, PLA general Fang Fenghui also declared that the disputed territory had been "passed down by our ancestors" and that China would not concede "an inch" in the dispute.

If Vietnam does not back down, China may need to start a war to diffuse growing external obstacles to its expansion, Duowei says, adding that the such a war with Vietnam would be preferable to one with Japan or the Philippines, both of which are also embroiled in territorial disputes with China.While Japan's military might cannot compare to China's, Tokyo has the backing of Washington and could complicate matters by dragging the US into the conflict. Furthermore, the mutual reliance on bilteral trade between the two countries means it is unlikely China would use military force at this stage.

In any potential conflict with the Philippines, China would be seen as a bully as the People's Liberation Army Navy would dominate in any maritime face-off. The Philippine Navy has only 26,000 soldiers and 66 surface ships, 17% of which are old ships from the World War II era. The PLA's South Sea Fleet alone, on the other hand, has more than 350 vessels, including 9 guided missile destroyers, 17 frigates, three nuclear submarines and 21 conventional submarines. The Philippines is also reliant on trade with China, its third largest trade partner, whereas for China the Philippines only accounts for 1% of its global trade volume.According to Duowei, Vietnam would be a much more formidable foe than the Philippines and would pose a lower risk of US involvement compared with Japan. The Vietnamese military has 412,000 soldiers with a 42,000-strong navy that possesses more than 100 vessels. While its air force has just 15,000 people it owns a total of 427 jets.

Vietnam appears to be hoping to still rely on China for its economy but is seeking protection from the US in terms of security, a strategy that is doomed to failure, Duowei says, adding that starting a war with Vietnam would not only be a guaranteed victory, it would also strike hard at US momentum in the region and stun neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Japan into backing off.

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