Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Blood and Sand

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 20, 2014 --  

Violence has once again erupted over control of the South China Sea. China risks driving its neighbors into the arms of America.

With at least two dead and hundreds injured in anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, the first casualties in more than a generation have have been lodged in the undeclared war over the South China Sea.1 Riots erupted in Vietnam last week after China placed an oil rig on the disputed island area and sent warships to intercept it. The Vietnamese government denounced the move, and initially allowed street protests to erupt before they degenerated into violence. Thousands of Chinese have since fled the country, many on evacuation ships sent by the Chinese government.

These events show the dangers of nationalism and the resentment of neighboring countries toward China’s rising power. The Spratly and Paracel islands are nothing but tiny sandbars and reefs scattered around the South China Sea, but are claimed all or in part by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. In the last bloody confrontation between Vietnam and China on the islands in 1988, Chinese forces killed 70 Vietnamese solders2, many bayonetted while defending Johnson South Reef. This generation-old incident undoubtedly helped inflame the anger of Vietnamese rioters.

The Vietnamese government has attempted to downplay the incident, wary of its image as a low-cost manufacturing center for companies from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Conflicting reports say that dozens more may have been killed, with several factories looted or torched.3

Meanwhile, the Philippines has been loudly protesting China’s building of what they say is an airstrip on Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, which the Philippines also claims.4 Friction with China over these territories is one motivation for a new pact between the Philippines and the United States allowing the return of U.S. warships and planes to Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base.5 The two bases had been ordered closed but the Philippine government in 1991 in the wake of rising nationalistic feeling, but now concern over Chinese bullying has apparently overtaken those concerns.

Similarly, Vietnam has agreed to open the foreign American naval base at Cam Ranh Bay to American as well as other foreign vessels, with then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta making a visit two years ago.6 The agreement restricts visits to non-combat vessels, probably due largely to painful memories of Vietnam’s long with with the United Status 40 years ago. But given recent friction with China, it is not difficult to imagine American warships being invited to return soon.

Further north, China is also attempting to assert authority over tiny specs of land known as the Senkaku islands by their Japanese owners, where several confrontations took place between Chinese and Japanese ships without casualties last year. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has since made clear that the islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan defense treaties.7 The incidents have nonetheless provoked a strong reaction by Japan, which last year unveiled its first aircraft carrier since World War II, while claiming it was merely a "helicopter destroyer."8

At first glance, these moves by China seem completely illogical. In attempting to assert authority over tiny specs of land of dubious value, it has alienated many of its neighbors and driven them further into the arms of America, which is China's chief regional rival. The simple explanation is that such moves are not driven by logic or economic self-interest, but by nationalism. Nationalistic acts can be motivated by emotion of governing officials, or by the need to garner more public support. The latter may be particularly valuable by a regime that has long based its legitimacy on raising living standards, yet faces slowing economic growth. In short, some officials may be preparing an alternate justification for continued Communist Party rule.

The Chinese have one and only one ally when it comes to these nationalistic acts -- ironically, their bitter rivals across the Taiwanese strait. As the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist regime, the Taiwanese government claims the exact same bits of rock and sand as does the mainland. But rather than Taiwan and the mainland fighting over control them, the two governments cooperate, expecting that their claims will eventually be merged upon reunification. The Taiwanese government, for example, occupies Taiping island, the largest of the Spratly group in the South China Sea where it maintains an airstrip and permanent military presence.9 Yet no mainland government action has ever challenged the Taiwanese presence.


1. South China Morning Post, Chinese Ships Evacuate 2,000 Workers From Vietnam as Hanoi Stifles Protests, May 19, 2014

2. Reuters, FACTBOX-The South China Sea's Disputed Maritime Borders, October 6, 2010

3. Reuters, Vietnam Vows Tough Measures to Avert Anti-China Unrest, May 17, 2014

4. Al-Jazeera, Manila: China Reclaiming Land for Spratly Island Airstrip, May 14, 2014

5. Christian Science Monitor, US, Philippines Boost Military Ties. Why now?, April 26, 2014

6. Bloomberg News, Cam Ranh Bay Lures Panetta Seeking Return to Vietnam Port, June 4, 2012

7. The Guardian, China Escalates Islands Dispute with Japan, November 24, 2013

8. The Diplomat, Japan’s Unveils "Aircraft Carrier in Disguise", August 27, 2013

9. The China Post, Cannons and Mortars to be Deployed on Taiping in South China Sea: MND, July 25, 2012