Tensions between Vietnam and China carry risk of bloodshed

Were a battle to break out in Southeast Asia, the most likely combatants would be China and Vietnam.  At the heart of the tension between these two countries is an ongoing territorial conflict over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.  In fact, of the conflicts between claimants to territory in the South China Sea (SCS), those between China and Vietnam have resulted in the most deaths.  One possible explanation for the disproportionate violence between Vietnam and China is that China realizes that Vietnam's lack of military strength or strong allies makes it among the most vulnerable claimants to territory in the South China Sea.

Data on confrontations between claimants to territory in the South China Sea reveals that China and Vietnam are among the most likely countries to engage in violent conflict with one another.  Of confrontations occurring in the years 1980 to 2012, I found that almost 40% percent were between China and Vietnam; of those confrontations that were violent, 48 percent were between China and Vietnam.  Additionally, 98% percent of deaths resulting from oceanic confrontations involved China and Vietnam.  Since there was an exceptionally lethal battle between Vietnam and China in the Spratly Islands in 1988, this number may be unnaturally high.  Thus, I looked at the number of people killed in confrontations between Vietnam and China between the years 1990 and 2012.  Even then, the number killed in China-Vietnam confrontations was over 83 percent of total deaths (see graph).


Why are China and Vietnam so prone to violent conflict?  While Vietnam has conflicting territorial claims that are close to the Chinese mainland, a far smaller military and population, and a poorer economy, the same could be said for the Philippines.  One key difference between Vietnam and the Philippines is that Vietnam has had no military alliance with the United States.  When Chinese military officials judge their response to Vietnamese challenges to Chinese control of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, they can confidently predict that the United States would be reluctant to intervene on Vietnam's behalf.

The future does not bode well for Vietnamese territorial claims.  China's new leaders have used resources from China's rapidly growing economy to provide the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with ample resources to outcompete Vietnam.  If Vietnam wishes to protect its remaining claims and avoid future bloodshed, it will have to find a great power benefactor to raise the stakes of future confrontations.

Data source:

Zhang, Junjie and Patrick Chester (2014). Conflict in the South China Sea. University of California: San Diego (Working Paper)

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Patrick Chester

graduated from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies in 2014 with an MA in International Politics and a regional focus on China. During the years 2009 and 2010, he studied Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing, China. During his term as a staff writer on China Focus, Patrick wrote on numerous topics relating to China including Chinese economic policy and conflict in the South China Sea. He also took active roles in the student groups China Focus and China Language Film Society. He intends to pursue a PhD in Political Science and continue to research China's political development.

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