Red on red: Conflict between Vietnam and China escalates

Things are getting ugly in the confrontation between China and Vietnam.  The two communist nations are feuding over China’s decision to move an offshore oil platform into disputed waters, in the most aggressive and insulting way possible – they rolled the oil rig into place surrounded by a fleet of military vessels – reportedly including missile ships, air cover, and submarines – ignoring Vietnam’s protests and demands for negotiation.

The Chinese appear to have underestimated the intensity of the reaction in Vietnam, where a sizable number of Chinese citizens live and work.  Well, they did until this weekend, anyway.  After riots killed two Chinese and injured a hundred others, China sent chartered planes and ships to evacuate over 3,000 of their people from Vietnam.  As CNN reports, either the Chinese don’t believe the Vietnamese government’s assertions that they can get the riots under control, they don’t think the government of Vietnam really wants to crack down on the riots, or they expect things to get even worse:

A series of chartered planes carried scores of Chinese citizens, including 16 critically injured workers, back to China on Sunday, Xinhua reported.

The critically hurt patients were suffering from a range of injuries inflicted by beatings with iron bars, said Liao Zhilin, a spokesman for the hospital in the western Chinese city of Chengdu where they were admitted.

The badly injured workers were employees of China Metallurgical Group Corp., a contractor for an iron and steel complex being built in Ha Tinh, according to Chinese state-run media.

Vietnamese authorities have clamped down on the unrest, arresting hundreds of people. They have beefed up security at key locations and urged citizens not participate in further protests.

But that hasn’t stopped China from pressing ahead with the measures to extract thousands of its citizens from the country. Beijing has also warned Chinese people not to travel to Vietnam and said it will suspend some planned bilateral exchanges with Hanoi, according to Xinhua.

Meanwhile, tensions are ratcheting up offshore:

Out in the South China Sea, ships from both countries are facing off.

Vietnam’s state-run news agency VNA on Saturday accused China of continuing to show “its aggressiveness by sending more military ships” to the area around the oil rig. Vietnam has demanded that China immediately withdraw the rig from the disputed waters.

The news agency cited Nguyen Van Trung, an official at the Vietnam Fisheries Surveillance Department, as saying that China had 119 ships in the area Saturday morning, including warships, coast guard vessels and fishing boats.

Some of the ships were provoking the Vietnamese vessels by ramming them and firing water cannons at them, he said.

China, for its part, has continued to accuse Vietnamese ships of similar acts, saying they are trying to disrupt the oil rig’s drilling operation. It has declared a 3-mile exclusion zone around the rig, which is operated by the state-owned oil and gas company CNOOC.

“We do not make trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble,” Gen. Fang Fenghui, the chief of the general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said Thursday during a visit to the United States.

“In matters of territory, our attitude is firm. We won’t give an inch,” Fang said after meeting U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The UK Independent relays reports that the death toll might be worse than authorities have officially admitted, with as many as 21 deaths so far, mostly Chinese citizens.  The Vietnamese government is showing signs of greater determination to prevent further street violence, including text messages sent to the cell phones of citizens, warning them that police will be deployed in force to maintain order.

It might initially seem like a relief to have an ugly international crisis that doesn’t involve the United States, and perhaps even a bit satisfying to watch two communist countries rip into each other… but as ABC News reports, this could be the first in a series of aggressive Chinese actions in disputed waters, and all the other moves they might consider making will involve American allies.  Also, the Obama Administration was supposedly making a big “pivot to Asia” after a string of foreign-policy debacles elsewhere in the world, and this unpleasantness with Vietnam could really mess up their plans:

Secretary of State John Kerry called his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Monday, condemning China’s “provocative” decision to introduce the rig and other government vessels into the disputed territory.

But the United States faces a conundrum even by weighing in on the situation, several Asia experts said, noting that the administration wants to build stronger ties in the region, but doesn’t want to risk antagonizing China.

Abe Denmark, vice president at the National Bureau of Asian Research, said that if tensions persist, other countries in the area like the Philippines and South Korea, which have their own territorial issues with China, might look to the United States to intervene.

“They’re worried about maintaining their own territorial integrity and their own sovereignty and they see the United States as the only country that can balance a rising China,” he said.

In fact, when he visited the Philippines at the end of April, President Obama signed a new defense agreement with the Manila government that increases opportunities for the U.S. to train Philippine forces and boosts its Coast Guard and police force.

China views the United States’ so-called “rebalance” to Asia as a potential threat, believing its focus in the region is encouraging China’s smaller neighbors to stand up to it, Denmark said.

One of China’s top generals, Fang Fenghui, accused the United States of doing just that when he visited the Pentagon Thursday, saying the United States “stirred up some of the problems which actually [made] the South China Sea and East China Sea not so calm as before.”

Every Western analyst is understandably concerned about “provoking” China, but they’re the ones who took indisputably provocative action by rolling that oil rig into territory claimed by Vietnam.  There are half a dozen similar flashpoints scattered across Asian waters.  The next navy confronted by Chinese aggression could be Japanese, Taiwanese, or South Korean.  Water-cannon duels are one thing – they happen occasionally in these disputed areas, and are always a bizarre spectacle – but when ships are being rammed, it raises concerns about someone squeezing a trigger and setting off a naval battle.

The Vietnam-China dispute escalated quickly.  As Bloomberg Businessweek recalls, only a month ago, Vietnamese and Chinese sailors were shaking hands and toasting each other with wine.  It’s common speculation that this standoff is really about China sending signals to the United States and her western allies.  In this case, the signal seems to be souring relations with a proxy nation that China invested considerable effort in courting as an ally over the past few years.  They seem very determined to send that “signal.”  The next one might be even louder.