Monday, May 19, 2014

Welcome to the World of Realpolitik, China

The dwindling world of Communism is getting more and more aggressive: towards each other.

Chinese authorities said Sunday that more than 3,000 Chinese had already been evacuated from Vietnam after protests over China's decision to move an oil rig into disputed waters of the South China Sea spiraled into riots last week in which foreign-owned factories were burned and looted.

Two Chinese citizens were killed in the violence and more than 100 were injured, authorities said.

The crisis has frayed ties between the two Communist-run Asian nations, and there is little sign of either side backing down over the increasingly bitter territorial dispute.

Vietnam has often played the part of pawn with respect to China. China, through Vietnam as proxy, fought two deadly wars with NATO allies, first France and then the United States (together known as the War in Vietnam in American history class). Of course, the Soviet Union also supplied materiel and advisors to the North Vietnamese factions, this may have aided in the Sino-Soviet split created by rival hegemonies in the region. Foolishly, Deng Xiaoping tried to bribe Vietnam to refuse all Soviet assistance.

This inflamed long-standing suspicions of Chinese imperialism over the Vietnamese. Indeed, Vietnam only received true independence as a result of some concatenations arising from the French-China war’s Treaty of Tientsin in 1884 (two World Wars and a 180 degree pivot by FDR on Vietnamese rule were later developments).

Finally, in 1979, tensions between Vietnam and China broke out into open warfare. Vietnam, still heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, engaged in a war with the Cambodian government, acting as China’s proxy. The Vietnamese eventually prevailed, ousting the Khmer Rouge – sort of. That didn’t completely unravel until 1990 – and forcing China’s hand.

At this point, Vietnam had become more and more reliant on Soviet assistance, creating closer ties between the two nations (indeed, any reasonable assessment of Soviet policy at the time would have revealed the Cold War was a sham). China, fearing a Soviet puppet in the region, decided it was time to act.

After the Vietnamese government was accused of oppressing the Hoa people – Vietnamese of Chinese extraction – China withdrew all of its assistance to Vietnam. On February 17, 1979, Chinese forces invaded Vietnam. The initial skirmishes were brutal and bloody, and China withdrew to the border, amassing troops in large numbers there until after 1990.

Tensions have never really been calm between both nations, but in 1991, after the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two nations attempted to mend fences, and introduced Vietnam into what is known as the Bamboo Network, Chinese companies operating in Southeast Asian nations.

And then, in 2011, you may remember I pointed out that the Spratly Islands (and the Paracels) were becoming a growing point of contention between the two nations, as well as Singapore, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines, all who claim a stake in the oil reserves there. Last year, Vietnam accused China of deliberately sinking a fishing vessel in the Paracels.

And so here we are. Do I imagine a full-scale war will break out between China and Vietnam? No. While both nations have become economic powerhouses, Vietnam would be foolish to challenge the Chinese in full-scale war. That doesn’t exclude skirmishes and even some long-term conflict, but it does rule out war economies on both sides.

What we are seeing is China flexing its muscles in a way that no nation has since America and the Soviets after World War II. That could spell trouble around the world and see the China-Vietnam conflict as a facet in a far larger conflagration, perhaps adding fuel to a fire that sparks someplace else.