If Vietnam-China Showdown Turns Hot, Here’s How It Could Go Down
Conflict between China and Vietnam is between a heavyweight and an underdog
One of the oldest rivalries on the planet has flared up again, and it’s all because of where China placed an oil rig in the South China Sea.
The location of an oil rig might not seem like enough to start a war. But the two countries are in an aggressive standoff that—given the politics of the region and the shared history between the two countries—has the potential to turn violent.
But to understand what could happen next, it’s important to look at the history of conflict between China and Vietnam, and the military forces both sides have at their disposal.
Suffice to say, the latter is outmatched. But Hanoi is rapidly building up its military forces. Chinese and Vietnamese clashes are also not likely to end if one side backs down tomorrow. Here’s why.
Staring down the barrel
First of all, the latest round of clashes began when HD-981, an oil rig owned by China National Offshore Oil Corporation, arrived at its location about 180 miles south of the Chinese island of Hainan on May 1.
Hanoi initially assumed the rig was simply passing through Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which is allowable under rules governing the zone.
But to Vietnam’s surprise, the rig stopped.
The Vietnamese coast guard set out to intercept the rig and demand it leave Vietnamese territorial waters, but the Chinese coast guard pushed right back. Some of the pushing is literal—both sides claim that each others’ coast guards have rammed their ships, causing damage. The Chinese coast guard has also sprayed Vietnamese ships with water cannons.
More than 100 vessels from both sides are reportedly circling the oil rig. That’s roughly 35 Vietnamese ships versus more than 90 Chinese vessels. At least one fighter jet, a JH-7 “Flounder”—likely from the People’s Liberation Army Navy—overflew the area.
The confrontation at sea triggered nationalist protests in Vietnam, which led to acts of arson against Chinese property. At least 21 people have died in the rioting, including Chinese nationals, and more than 100 wounded.
More than 600 Chinese citizens crossed the border from Vietnam back into China. Beijing has also sent ships and planes to evacuate Chinese citizens, including those wounded in the protests.
That the crisis hasn’t escalated further is encouraging. Previous incidents of this kind have led to bloodshed.
Millennia of bad blood
China has dominated Vietnam four times over the last 2,000 years, the earliest in the first century BC. During those periods, Vietnam was effectively a vassal state of China. Vietnam paid heavy taxes to China, and suffered political, cultural and economic subordination.
China invaded Vietnam in 1979. It was a disaster. The People’s Liberation Army, gutted by political purges during Cultural Revolution, was in poor shape to conduct even a short war.
Vietnam, on the other hand, had been fighting almost nonstop in one form or the other since the end of World War II. China’s attempt to win a quick victory backfired as the PLA’s invasion quickly slowed to a crawl. Beijing lost 9,000 soldiers in nearly a month of fighting.
In 1988, Vietnamese and Chinese naval forces clashed at the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea. Both countries claimed the reef, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy opened fire when the Vietnamese military attempted to raise a flag on the tiny islet.
That was a particularly bad incident. Chinese troops killed 70 Vietnamese sailors and marines, and sank two armored transports.
Relations between the two countries in recent years have been—compared to the last 2,000 years—quite good. The two nations normalized relations in 1991.
China is now Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade reached $50.21 billion dollars in 2013, up 22 percent in a single year. Three quarters of the trade is in the form of Chinese imports, making Vietnam an important market for Chinese companies.
The concern is that mutual animosities could cause one side to miscalculate and use force. Any clash between China and Vietnam would likely occur at sea, in and around the oil rig itself. With that in mind, let’s look at the forces on both sides.
China: The local heavyweight
Almost certainly, the People’s Liberation Army Navy South Sea Fleet would lead any naval operation against Vietnam.
Based at Zhanjiang on China’s southern coastline, the South Sea Fleet is oriented toward the South China Sea and Taiwan. This is the PLAN’s primary strike force in the region. The fleet has carried out numerous anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, which has added to the fleet’s blue water experience.
The South Sea Fleet has 29 surface combatants in total. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the entire British Royal Navy. This includes 14 of the PLAN’s most modern ships: three Type 052 air-defense destroyers, eight Type 054A frigates and three Type 056 corvettes.
The Type 052 count as Beijing’s most advanced destroyers. Known as “China’s Aegis destroyers,” they sport phased-array radars similar to the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for advanced detection of missiles and aircraft. The South Seas Fleet has another 15 destroyers and frigates of older vintage that would be less useful, but still sport modern YJ-82 and YJ-83 anti-ship missiles.
The South Sea Fleet is also where all three of China’s new Type 071 amphibious warfare ships call home. Each can carry 400 to 800 marines accompanied by helicopters and landing hovercraft.
In March, all three ships conducted an amphibious exercise in the South China Sea simulating an amphibious assault on a small island. Two of these ships are reportedly in vicinity of the oil rig.
Chinese naval forces would be backed up by air power from the PLAN’s air force. The South Sea Fleet has two fighter divisions, with a total strength of 40 fighters and 40 fighter bombers like the JH-7 that overflew the rig. This could be reinforced by the air force’s 300 or so fighters and fighter bombers—and 40 medium bombers located in Chinese military regions bordering Vietnam.
In total, China has nearly 300 modern fighters and more than 1,000 fighters of varying vintage. But the limited amount of space available at regional airbases and logistical concerns would mean not all of them could fight at once.
Vietnam: The underdog
Vietnam has also been preparing for this sort of scenario. Vietnam’s defense spending has more than doubled since 2004. After years of neglect of its military, Vietnam has recently pushed to modernize the armed forces, starting with the Vietnam People’s Air Force and People’s Navy.
Vietnam knows that it can’t match its larger neighbor in military equipment—it spends less than one-sixtieth on defense compared to China’s budget. Instead, Hanoi has been acquiring components to execute an “anti-access, area denial” strategy.
Executed skillfully, such a strategy would make parts of the South China Sea no-go zones for Chinese warships.
A key part of this new strategy involves Vietnam acquiring its first full-size submarines. In 2009, Vietnam agreed to a deal with Russia for six improved Kilo-class submarines. These are improved versions of the same submarines that China bought from Russia in the mid to late 1990s.
One submarine, HQ-182 Hanoi, is already in service with the Vietnamese navy. The other five are in sea trials or under construction.
After decades of relying on aging Soviet and American ships, Vietnam is also finally investing in new frigates and corvettes.
The Vietnam People’s Navy received two Russian Gepard-class frigates in 2011. Displacing nearly 2,000 tons when fully loaded and carrying eight SS-N-25 Switchblade anti-ship missiles, the Gepards are optimized for anti-ship warfare. Vietnam also has two modern Dutch Sigma-class corvettes on order, but those are still years from delivery.
Hanoi’s People’s Air Force is another part of the anti-access strategy. Vietnam has 12 Russian Su-27 air superiority fighters and up to 36 Su-30 multi-role fighters—again, aircraft that also exist in China’s inventory. Vietnam’s Sukhois will attempt to maintain air superiority over Vietnam, but there aren’t many of them to go around.
The rest of the People’s Air Force consists of 38 Su-22 ground attack aircraft and 144 MiG-21Bis fighters, both of 1980s vintage. These aircraft could be used to attack Chinese naval vessels in disputed waters, but the South Sea Fleet’s 052C and O52D air-defense destroyers could make life difficult for the Vietnamese pilots.
Could a Sino-Vietnamese clash in the South China Sea actually take place? It’s possible, but there are a few complications.
Let’s get this out of the way: The latest confrontation is indeed highly dangerous. This time, China is taking an unusually confrontational approach with Vietnam.
While China and Japan have squared off at the Senkaku (also known as Diaoyu) islands in the East China Sea, the confrontation there has been relatively mild. Neither China nor Japan have used water cannon on one another, there has no ramming and uniformed Chinese military have stayed out of the picture.
At this point, it looks like the side most likely to escalate would be Vietnam. Hanoi believes the rig is intruding onto Vietnamese territory, whereas China has already established a presence in the area. Essentially, China is attempting to create a new status quo in the region without resorting to shooting at anyone, and success partly depends on Vietnam backing down.
Vietnam might back down—for now. Most of the new fleet Hanoi recently bought for itself is still in shipyards under construction, and what ships it has would be grossly outnumbered by the South Sea Fleet. Vietnam’s air and naval forces wouldn’t stand a chance.
Time is on China’s side. China has taken the initiative and left Vietnam with few options. Vietnam’s best bet is the legal option, filing a claim with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over Chinese intrusion in its EEZ. The Philippines filed a similar claim earlier this year against China regarding the South China Sea.
Of course, China has ignored the Philippines’ claim, and will likely ignore Vietnam’s claim too. But if China ignores any legal decisions against it, where would that leave Vietnam?
Here’s where. In a few years, Vietnam will have the best submarine fleet in southeast Asia. And, having exhausted other avenues of dispute resolution, a reason to use it.