Chinese and Vietnamese Strategies for the South China Sea Dispute

China’s recent infrastructure and military developments in the South China Sea has aggravated tensions between multiple countries for several decades now, especially with neighboring Vietnam, and the issue has grown more important to the south Asian region and its allies in previous months. The recent diplomatic strategies and possible future moves of both China and Vietnam differ in approach: the more aggressive China is unwilling to halt development of an airfield and use of oil rigs in the region, while Vietnam is pursuing primarily legal and defensive measures against what it claims as a Chinese invasion of territory. I will give a brief contextual overview of the South China Sea dispute’s overlapping claims of sovereignty of several island chains. I will then outline the most recent foreign policy and diplomacy decisions made by the Chinese and Vietnamese governments, with a focus on the somewhat nebulous Chinese policies. Finally, I offer several predictions about how China and Vietnam are likely to react in the immediate future regarding the claims over the disputed islands, based on their current diplomatic trajectory.

Context of the South China Sea Dispute

The dispute in the South China Sea began in 1947 when the Chinese released a map updating their territorial claims to include, among others, both the Paracel and Spratly island chains. The Chinese seizure of the Paracel islands from Vietnam followed in 1974, along with a brief conflict between China and Vietnam in 1988 over the Spratly islands which resulted in the deaths of 74 Vietnamese and the loss of 3 Vietnamese ships. Despite anger from Vietnam over these actions, international tensions in the region simmered but did not result in military action. Instead, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed and signed a nonbinding Declaration of Conduct for the area, which was approved by the Chinese government. This did not stop China from claiming sovereignty in the region and pursuing infrastructure development, and in 2012 the creation of Sansha City, an armed government outpost, sparked anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. Further exacerbating tensions, China installed an oil rig, complete with an armed flotilla, only 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast in 2014, a distance considered far too close for the Vietnamese. More importantly and explained below, this rig is within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam. Certainaggressive engagements between the two countries, including Chinese boats non-fatally attacking Vietnamese boats, threatened to dissolve into armed conflict; however, the situation de-escalated as China agreed to move the oil rig further away.

Most recently, China successfully completed the construction of an airfield on a reef in the Spratly islands, referred to in China as the Nansha islands. On January 9th, the Chinese tested the airfield by landing a civilian plane. As a result, the Vietnamese government issued a protest to the Chinese embassy and the UN, claiming the act violated Vietnamese territorial sovereignty.

Under the resolution adopted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Part V, articles 55-75, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) extend a coastal nation’s sovereign rights and duties to a zone no more than 200 nautical miles around the country. A separate Vietnamese declaration specified the EEZ to extend the full 200 nautical miles around the country, with its territorial sea extending 12 nautical miles from the coast. Crucially, the state in control of a given EEZ retains the rights over natural resources, as well as the building and maintaining of any structures or artificially constructed sites, whether for the harvesting of natural resources or not. China, by building oil rigs and airfields within Vietnam’s designated EEZ, and by claiming territories within the EEZs of other countries like Japan and the Philippines, is in direct violation of the UN Law of the Sea. By the time of this declaration, however, China had already asserted the territories were within its sovereign control, making it possible for the Chinese to exploit this loophole in the EEZ boundary regulations.

 Recent Chinese Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

Chinese foreign policy in recent years has been a mix of isolationism and interference marked by the steadfast support of their state sovereignty and economic interests. There have been several noticeable shifts in Chinese diplomatic strategy in the past few years, however. Until mid-2015, the Chinese subtly but undeniably claimed the aforementioned territories in the South China Sea. Essentially, the Chinese diplomatic strategy employed towards these issues is one of delay and, if not full, at least superficial willingness to proceed without declaring or engaging in serious aggression. Scholars Shih Chih-yu and Yin Jiwu examine the dichotomy of China’s focus on national interest and belief in a harmonious world order. They conclude that, in regards to the South China Sea conflict, China has given mild concessions (including moving its oil rig further out to sea and agreeing to a non-legally binding declaration of conduct, explained below) in order to avoid diplomatic isolation from Vietnam and other Asian nations, but remains committed to its claims to the disputed territories. In the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DoC) in the South China Sea, which was negotiated in the ASEAN, China conceded that the territory was disputed, rather than entirely within Chinese territorial sovereignty. The declaration also stated the signing parties would not use military force and “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” This may not seem like a victory for Vietnam and other Asian nations contesting China’s territorial claims, but combined with the DoC meant China does, to a certain extent, show willingness to cooperate within the existing international order. The lack of legal formality of the DoC and a failure to translate the declaration into operating policies means China has not stopped developing its airstrip and clashing with various navies in the decade and a half after its signing, and supports Shih and Yin’s “harmonious disciplining” theory of Chinese foreign policy. China’s engagement with fishing boats around the shoals and its expansion of military-capable infrastructure are certainly aggressive; congruently, China’s careful use of non-naval ships in these engagements and its agreement to participate in transnational diplomatic channels like ASEAN are meant to delay outright retaliation. Essentially, China walks the line between blatant aggression and token diplomacy meant to pacify other regional actors. Significantly, Shih and Yin expect China’s agreeable but mildly aggressive diplomatic strategy to continue as long as “global influences are not direct,” highlighting the unwillingness of the Chinese to engage in aggression with powers outside the region on the South China Sea issue. Escalated tensions between China and the US in the region fail so far to incite any real action between the two countries aside from government statements.

Others view recent Chinese foreign policy as softer and more flexible in the previous few years. In Foreign Policy, Robert Manning notes that the Chinese have made legitimate and considerable attempts to repair relationships with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, as well as other neighbors in the region. Manning credits this in part to cooperation on other issues unrelated to the South China Sea, such as Chinese involvement in the Middle East and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) project, a new World Bank-scale investment project.  What is important to note is the increasing relevance of the AIIB to China’s domestic and foreign interests. In a recent talk, Professor Erik Berglof noted that the AIIB was both an attempt to provide strong economic support to entire region, but also to counteract and change China’s lack of influence in the International Monetary Fund and the International Development Bank.  Manning also recognizes that China was no doubt carefully monitoring the threat of “global influence” mentioned by Shih and Yin. The US remains in strong ties with many competing countries in the region with notable military defense pacts with Japan and the Philippines in particular.

Recent Vietnamese Foreign Policy and Diplomacy

It is both difficult and unfair to compare the strategies of China to Vietnam, and indeed to those of other countries such as the Philippines, because of the difference in scale of power between the two. Vietnam has less leverage over China due to the weakness of Vietnam’s economy, military, and influence relative to China. Chau Bao Nguyen’s July 2015 article concludes that military aggression towards China is not an option for Vietnam, a reality reflected in Vietnam’s limit to verbal outrage. However, the Vietnamese remain adamant and defensive over the South China Sea islands—in particular the Paracels and Spratlys. Vietnam continues to uphold its original territorial claims that contest with Chinese declarations in 1947 and asserts their national sovereignty over the area through their EEZ mostly through government declarations. Vietnam does, however, have the legal upper hand: Vietnam appealed to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf separately but in conjunction with the Philippines, and more importantly, The Hague agreed to hear an arbitral trial over the dispute. In terms of military alliances, Vietnam has the arguable advantage: China’s foreign policy in the region revolves around the lack of global power interference, especially from the United States, while Vietnam is supported by the US’s military. The Philippines and Japan, also key US allies, back Vietnam’s complaints against China. The South China Sea issue was brought to the table when Vietnam and the US entered further cooperative negotiations following the 2014 oil rig incident. The Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries also support Vietnam’s position and have a particular interest in keeping Chinese military capability outside of their own EEZs. A combination of international pressure and Vietnamese anger over the 2014 oil rig incident did result in China moving the oil rig further away from Vietnam’s coastline. While this should not be considered a full victory for Vietnam—China is still inside their legal territory, with no plans to leave—it shows China’s reluctance to fully break diplomatic ties with Vietnam, as well as the power of international leverage, even within the region.

What to Expect Next

The South China Sea dispute is one that is still evolving, though at a very delicate pace. Serious damage could be done should the Chinese move too aggressively against key US allies and it is well within their best interests to not antagonize the US into an actual military conflict. Concessions over cybersecurity in the past two years and the cooperation seen at the COP21 environmental conference are just two pieces of evidence in the case against the Chinese wanting to provoke the US. China is likely unwilling to completely alienate the rest of the countries involved, since President Xi’s diplomatic efforts have been far too great within the countries involved to disregard, and because the success of the AIIB, which would have far-reaching positive consequences for China’s economy and reputation, is a far more important issue. This is not to say that China will agree to back off from the intrusion into whichever islands they claim over Vietnam or the Philippines. China can continue to develop the area in dispute while Vietnam and the Philippines protest through various methodical and soft-handed international organizations. China has already seen that it can get away with slow progress, soft concessions to organizations like ASEAN, and superficial diplomatic efforts in regards to its presence on the disputed islands. More blatant aggressive acts like those against fishing boats has not been enough to garner more than an increased US presence in the region; at this point, China is betting (and relying) on the entire region’s unwillingness to escalate the situation. A truer test of China’s desire for the islands will come if any country in the region is offended or threatened enough to fire upon another. That will almost certainly involve the US and other international powers and cause China to reassess the importance of perceived national sovereignty relative to harmony in the region.

The Vietnamese, on the other hand, have limited options in terms of recapturing the area currently held by the Chinese. Modernizing the navy was not enough to make Vietnam a threat to China, but maintaining US and broad international support on the issue did cause a reaction. The best strategy currently for Vietnam is to petition for change within ASEAN and the UN on proper legal grounds and maintain in close contact with other powers in the area. Potentially, advocating on these broad platforms could give Vietnam the support and international pressure it needs for China to lessen its advances without the use of international military action.

Erin Bovee is a student in the School of International Service class of 2017. She can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

About Erin Bovee

Contributing editor for the Asia column / Senior studying peace, international organizations, and human rights in the School of International Service / Email me at / Twitter @ErinBovee