When China and Vietnam last went to war, both suffered a bloody nose although it was Beijing which fired the first salvo and wanted to teach Hanoi a “lesson.”
Thirty-five years later, as deadly anti-China riots wreak havoc this week across Vietnam and push Sino-Vietnamese relations to their lowest levels since the 1979 war, some are asking whether the two Communist neighbors will trade blows again. And if they do, who will prevail?
While the two archrivals are unlikely to risk full-blown battles over their overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, matters could still spiral out of control, analysts said, as Vietnamese mobs burned factories and attacked Chinese nationals to vent their anger over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast.
“China's armed forces are larger and better equipped than Vietnam's, so if a conflict does break out China will ultimately prevail,” Ian Storey, a security expert at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told RFA.
“However, over the past few years, Vietnam has acquired advanced air and naval assets which, if push came to shove, could give China a bloody nose,” he said.
“Also, despite China's numerical advantages, we must never underestimate the fighting qualities of the Vietnamese armed forces—a lesson the French, Americans, and Chinese learned at great cost in the second half of the 20th century,” Storey said.
In their last war, China launched the offensive in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 that ended the rule of the notorious Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.
Then Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping vowed to teach the Vietnamese "a lesson," as he ordered troops into Vietnam’s northern provinces. But hardly six weeks after the offensive, Chinese troops withdrew following heavy casualties. Tens of thousands of combatants died on both sides.
A war today between the two powers would be different, however, experts say.
China and Vietnam have beefed up their forces on the back of their until-recently rapidly growing economies.
“The 1979 border war was purely a one-dimensional conflict involving land forces only,” noted Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“Any conflict between China and Vietnam today would be largely two dimensional using air and maritime forces,” he told RFA, predicting that the Chinese navy would overwhelm any force that Vietnam puts to sea.
“Vietnam has no experience and has not practiced for a conventional engagement at sea. China could easily strike Vietnam naval bases and make matters worse,” he said. “The Chinese Air Force would be instrumental in this.”
The rapidly expanding Chinese Navy, which commissioned 17 new warships last year, the most of any nation, unleashed its first aircraft carrier in 2012.
Two other carriers are expected to enter service by 2025, significantly beefing up its ability to project power into the South China Sea, which it claims virtually in its entirety.
On the other hand, Vietnam’s greatest deterrent, its Kilo-submarines, are not operational, said Thayer, a Vietnam military expert. "They have experienced difficulties in communicating."
Perhaps for such reasons, Vietnam, which has been reeling from an economic crisis over the last few years, has prudently kept its navy and air force out of the current confrontation, he said.
In a show of force, China has deployed 86 ships of nine different types to protect the oil drilling rig called HD 981, parked in disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands.
The Chinese fleet includes naval ships such as the anti-missile ship 534 Jianghu II, fast-attack missile crafts 752, 753 and 754, and the most recently commissioned anti-submarine ship 786, according to reports.
Chinese helicopters and aircraft have also been dispatched to shore up protection of the rig, some of which are believed to have flown 200 to 300 meters (656 to 984 feet) above Vietnamese vessels in an apparent bid to prevent them from trying to disrupt the rig’s placement and operations.
Chinese vessels had rammed Vietnamese coast guard ships and turned water cannon on those that approached the rig.
Such actions have, even by the more aggressive standards of recent years, probably been the hardest-line actions taken by Beijing in the South China Sea in 20 years, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
"And China shows no sign of backing down," he said.
There is a “real threat" that acts of brinksmanship, like the ramming of Vietnamese vessels, "could escalate quickly,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warned in a recent report.
Still, it believes that Vietnam’s relative naval capabilities will likely help temper Chinese assertiveness.
Despite the presence of Chinese naval vessels around the oil rig, it appeared that only Chinese Coast Guard vessels were involved in harassing and deterring Vietnamese ships attempting to enter the waters around the rig, CSIS said.
It called on Vietnam’s neighbors and external partners, such as the United States, to use every available channel to urge caution on both sides.
U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden underscored to a visiting Chinese military leader on Thursday “the United States' serious concern about China's unilateral actions in waters disputed with Vietnam," his office said in a statement.
"The vice president reaffirmed that while the United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims, no nation should take provocative steps to advance claims over disputed areas in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region."
But Chinese General Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, made it clear that Beijing believes the oil drilling is in China's territorial waters and said, "we cannot afford to lose an inch" of that territory, which, he said, has been passed down by ancestors.
Despite the harsh rhetoric and tense sea skirmishes, Hanoi and Beijing are still using diplomatic channels to relay their concerns to each other.
When reports emerged on Thursday that that up to 21 people may have been killed in the anti-China riots, China's foreign minister Wang Yi told Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh in an urgent phone call that "Vietnam bears unshirkable responsibility for the violent attacks against Chinese companies and nationals,” the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said in a report.
China also sent a working group, led by Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao, to Vietnam on Thursday to deal with the aftermath of the riots, Xinhua said.
Hanoi, on the other hand, has “strongly denounced" China's actions and demanded that it pull its oil rig and helicopters from Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and "not pursue similar actions in future,” according to state media.
"It's in neither countries' interests to go to war in the South China Sea," Storey said. "And this reduces the likelihood of war.”
“That said, there's always the risk that an incident at sea leads to an exchange of gunfire which then escalates into a serious military conflict between Vietnam and China.”
He said the "very tense situation" prevailing now "is likely to persist until the floating exploratory rig is withdrawn by China in August, as announced by Beijing.
Thayer too does not see the prospects of another war on the scale of the six-week war in 1979.
“Holding and defending land is one matter, fighting at sea to defend a claim to an Exclusive Economic Zone is another,” he said.