Is war in the South China Sea inevitable?

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Senkaku Islands

Senkaku Islands

The conventional wisdom in geopolitical circles is that a war between the United States and China is not going to happen — not now, not tomorrow – simply because their economies are intricately intertwined with one another like the fabled Gordian Knot. Destroying each other would be like committing a suicide pact. And why would they do that? Are they out of their minds? No, but like other nations or kingdoms before them – and I’m talking at least 5,000 years of civilization – the “inevitability of war” was the conventional thinking of those who were in power.

Indeed, “war mentality” is still prevalent and those in power are perpetually preparing their armies for war. Some countries in the Middle East are already at war and others are on the threshold of hostilities. In particular, several countries in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS) are embroiled in territorial disputes with China over the “ownership” of a number of islets, reefs, rocks, and shoals.

Flashpoints in Asia-Pacific

East and South China Seas

East and South China Seas

In the ECS, Japan and China have laid claim to a small group of uninhabited islands and islets known as the Senkaku (Diaoyu to China) Islands. Administered by Japan, China claims that the islands belong to her. Right now, the two countries are at a standoff. While both are showing some restraint, the situation is teetering and all it takes is for someone to fire the first shot.

The SCS, however, is a different situation. With China aggressively moving to take full control of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal, a ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that was favorable to the Philippines hit China with a triple whammy. It deemed illegal China’s territorial claims over an area greater than 80% of the SCS, demarcated by an arbitrary “nine-dash line” that China drew up in 1947. The PCA ruled that the “nine-dash line” is illegal. It also ruled that China has no “historic rights” to these waters and couldn’t prevent the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimant countries from fishing and drilling for oil in their own Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). But China, as expected, doesn’t recognize the PCA’s ruling.

Vietnam plays “wild card”

Mobile EXTRA missile system

Mobile EXTRA missile system

And just as China’s leaders are trying so hard to get the international community’s support for her territorial claims — including the use of economic blackmail and political arm-twisting — Vietnam was silently preparing for war. Recently, she installed mobile rocket launchers in five of the 21 islands she controls in the Spratly archipelago. The state-of-the-art Israeli-made weapon system, known as Extended Range Artillery Rocket (EXTRA), can hit targets of up to 130 kilometers, which would put all of China’s military structures in the Spratlys within its range, including the trade route that passes through the Strait of Malacca.

With five of Vietnam’s fleet of six Russian-built Kilo-class submarines already operational and based in the Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base (built by the U.S. during the Vietnam War), China has a vulnerable spot in her maritime underbelly; thus, making her warships easy targets.

But Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry denied the report, saying the information was “inaccurate.” However, the Ministry also said that the Vietnamese military has the right to move equipment on Vietnam’s own sovereign soil, which was also echoed by Deputy Defense Minister Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, who told reporters: “It is within our legitimate right to self-defense to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory.” With both China and Vietnam claiming all the islands as their own, it would seem that military confrontation couldn’t be avoided. The question is: How far would a confrontation go? Will it drag the U.S. and Russia into the conflict?

Old enemies, new friends

Presidents Barack Obama and Tran Dai Quang

Presidents Barack Obama and Tran Dai Quang

Although Vietnam – unlike the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia – doesn’t have any defense treaty with the U.S., the relationship between the two old enemies has been warming up in the past few years.

Last May 2016, President Barack Obama announced during his visit to Hanoi that the U.S. would fully lift an embargo of lethal arms sales to Vietnam. “This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War,” Obama told reporters.

While Russia has been Vietnam’s major arms suppliers for more than three decades, the U.S. arms sales to Vietnam would increase her ability to defend her territories in the event China invades them. And with the EXTRA missile system deployed within striking distance of China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys, China would think twice before attempting to invade the Vietnamese-controlled islands. The price would be too high.

Sinking the unsinkable carrier

Fiery Cross Reef: Unsinkable aircraft carrier

Fiery Cross Reef: Unsinkable aircraft carrier

Vietnam is also negotiating the purchase of India’s advanced supersonic BrahMos missiles, reputedly the world’s fastest and deadliest cruise missiles. It will give the Vietnamese military a huge asymmetric advantage over China. They can easily be installed in small missile boats to take out large targets such as China’s newly built airbases in the Spratlys, which have been recently reinforced with hangars designed to house and shield fighter aircraft. The intelligence reports stated that each airbase would be capable of housing 24 fighter jets along with three or four larger aircraft; thus, allowing China to deploy a force of at least 70 combat aircraft in the airbases built on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. That would be the equivalent of the number of aircraft on an American aircraft carrier. It would be an unsinkable aircraft carrier. However, if Vietnam acquired the BrahMos cruise missiles, she would be able to “sink” them.

But there is one problem: BrahMos is a joint venture between an Indian company and a Russian conglomerate through an Inter-Governmental Agreement signed between the Republic of India and the Russian Federation. In other words, India cannot sell BrahMos missiles to third party countries – like Vietnam – if Russia objects to the sale. It’s all up to one man, Vladimir Putin.

China-Russia Axis

Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin

Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin

With Chinese President Xi Jinping cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin after holding war games in the South China Sea, a strategic relationship is being established between China and Russia. Recently, Xi told the Daily Star, “I believe that Russia and China could create an alliance toward which NATO will be powerless and which will put an end to the imperialist desires of the West.”

If a China-Russia Axis is formed for the sole purpose of fighting the U.S., Vietnam might be pressured by Russia to take the side of China. But my take is that Vietnam wouldn’t give up her sovereignty over the islands she controls and occupies. Instead, she might turn to the U.S. for help. It would not then come as a surprise if Vietnam and the U.S. would sign a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) for the use of the Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base by U.S. forces. As someone once said, “There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”

Regardless of what’s going to happen next, I believe that China has provoked and finally awakened the sleeping Vietnamese tiger, which has been in deep slumber since 1975 after the American forces left Saigon. But now that she’s awake, is war in the South China Sea inevitable?

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)


2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Don Azarias says:

    Perry,

    If there will be a war, it will only involved those countries who have claims to those disputed islands, reefs, rocks and shoals, which include the Philippines. It won’t even be a long war because China’s formidable military would decimate those weaker nations in no time at all.

    I don’t believe the United States will get involved in this conflict to defend the Philippines. There’s so much at stake, in terms of the its vibrant economic ties with China and the staggering total costs of war including lost of lives and military assets.

    And even if the U.S. president wants to go to war with China, I do believe the war-weary American people won’t support it and U.S. Congress won’t allow it. It’s also thousands of miles away from the U.S. mainland and its territories to even be perceived as a threat to its own security.

    So, the Filipino people should have no illusions of the Americans coming to its defense. We could only blame those so-called ‘Filipino nationalists’ for closing the U.S. air and naval bases in the Philippines.

  2. Harriet says:

    Two days ago Australian warships sailed north, towards the South China Sea. Yet on google Philippines I see NOT comment of this happening. It is though information which is important to know is not being allowed to be known.

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