THE PAPER | China & Vietnam in South China Sea : A Spiral of Reactions and Counter-reactions
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THE PAPER | China & Vietnam in South China Sea : A Spiral of Reactions and Counter-reactions

By Vera Dicke and Heike Holbig

Image Attribute:  Photo licensed under Creative Commons by SurfaceWarriors

To assess China’s behavior, we should take a closer look at the recent events. Roughly since 2009 the conduct of all claimants in the South China Sea has become increasingly aggressive. In May 2009 a UN deadline expired that had been set for the affected Southeast Asian states to submit their respective claims on areas going beyond their EEZs (Kreuzer 2014). 

Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines submitted claims that encompassed disputed waters (Swaine and Fravel 2011). China reacted with a note verbale to the UN Secretary-General, claiming “indisputable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea”, which triggered counterclaims by the Philippines. Tensions have since increased in the South China Sea. Various countries’ coast guard ships have rammed fishing boats, while exploration vessels have been forced by other nations to leave disputed areas. 

The roles of aggressor and victim have constantly changed, although confrontations between China and Vietnam or the Philippines have more frequently been reported than those between Vietnam and the Philippines. In 2012 the Philippines was the first country since the 1980s to use an armed military ship on the Scarborough Shoal against Chinese fishermen. In the context of the South China Sea disputes, this was a clear sign of escalation (Kreuzer 2014).

Although reports about risky incidents and coast guard ships ramming fishing boats have increased, Vietnam’s strategy toward China seems to be more subtle. In 2007 it amplified its own oil exploration efforts in waters also claimed by China and in 2011 conducted seismic surveys in those same waters (Swaine and Fravel 2011). In the diplomatic realm, Vietnam’s strategy has been to internationalize the dispute – something China wants to avoid – in order to generate support for its claims among the international community (Swaine and Fravel 2011). It has hosted several international conferences about the South China Sea (the last in July 2014), the deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 platform and the possibilities of an international lawsuit against China (ibid.; Dien 2014). By inviting international guests, Vietnam is publicly underlining its own claims and trying to legitimize them. Vietnam also decided to take legal action against China over the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig (Dien 2014).

Despite this, there have also been diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between the two countries. For example, in 2011 China and Vietnam agreed to conduct bilateral negotiations on the South China Sea and to enhance cooperation in less sensitive fields, such as maritime environmental protection and sea-related scientific research (Vietnam+ 2011). Hotlines between the countries’ respective foreign ministries and agriculture ministries were established in order to manage emerging confrontations. Furthermore, during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Vietnam in October 2013 (Vietnam News 2013), numerous agreements were signed, thus revealing how intense economic and diplomatic cooperation had become throughout the previous few years.

However, in the security realm, things look different. Vietnam is increasingly strengthening its ties with the United States and Japan (Manyin et al. 2012), both of which support Vietnam’s coast guard – a central actor in the disputes in the South China Sea. In the light of China’s positioning of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig, Vietnamese officials have suggested that US warships could be allowed to visit the country’s strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay. Whereas the Philippines has sided with the United States as part of a bandwagoning strategy and opposes China, Vietnam has employed a balancing approach and cooperates with both the United States and China in order to preserve room for maneuver (Kreuzer 2014). In view of the recent events, however, this balance of cooperation might tilt toward the United States.

China has a longstanding two-pronged strategy in the South China Sea. On the one hand, it tries to avoid severe conflicts through negotiation and cautious management. In these negotiations, it aims at deferring any final solution. On the other hand, it maintains a fierce defense against any attempts by the other claimant states to change the status quo to its disadvantage (Swaine and Fravel 2011). China’s placement of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig could fall into the second part of this strategy. Although it is difficult to say what exactly triggered China’s decision to move the oil platform into the disputed waters, it is highly probable that China – despite diplomatic efforts on both sides – felt provoked by Vietnam in a spiral of reactions and counter-reactions. For example, in 2012 PetroVietnam and CNOCC both invited foreign companies to explore the same area in the South China Sea, which resulted in a diplomatic crossing of swords (Bloomberg News 2012). This may have instigated a race to be the first to drill for oil in this area. If the deployment of the oil platform fits with the second part of the two pronged strategy, its early withdrawal could belong to the first part – namely, the avoidance of severe conflicts. In removing the oil rig from the disputed waters one month earlier than scheduled, China reaffirmed that the purpose of the oil rig was exploratory drilling and that it had always intended to leave once it had finished its work. Nevertheless, the diplomatic damage had certainly been done and will remain for some time. It is thus clear that the second element of China’s two pronged strategy guided this action.

To be clear, China’s actions in the South China Sea cannot be described as peaceful or purely as self-defense; though the same can be said about the other claimant states. The level of assertiveness by all concerned parties has increased considerably in recent years and has triggered an endless spiral of provocations, reactions and counterreactions. The alleged – and in fact questionable (Kreuzer 2014) – oil reserves only explain part of this development. Territorial issues have always been and always will be an area of high sensitivity. Decisions have to be balanced between strategic geopolitical considerations, diplomatic conduct and nationalist sentiment among the population. In recent years strategic geopolitical concerns and nationalism have clearly dominated, though the remaining rules of diplomatic conduct have been able to prevent major escalations. Also, China’s decision in spring 2013 to merge the various competing bureaucracies in charge of maritime policies into the new State Oceanic Administration – which aims to regain control and command over domestic actors’ behavior in territorial disputes with neighboring countries (Noesselt and Hieber 2013) – corroborates the willingness of the Chinese leadership to avoid a dynamic escalation of existing tensions.

Cite This Article:

Dicke, Vera ; Holbig, Heike ; GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies - Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien (Ed.): Rising Sino-Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea. Hamburg, 2014 (GIGA Focus International Edition 8). URN: / Download the Paper - LINK

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