Are China and Vietnam on the Verge of Another War?

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (2nd L) watches soldiers operating a Russian-made anti-aircraft S-300 missile guiding system as he visits the air defense missile battalion No. 64 belonging to the Air Force's division No. 361 in Hanoi, Jan. 13, 2014.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (2nd L) watches soldiers operating a Russian-made anti-aircraft S-300 missile guiding system as he visits the air defense missile battalion No. 64 belonging to the Air Force's division No. 361 in Hanoi, Jan. 13, 2014.

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.”

Chinese Navy

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.

Hardest-line actions

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.

'Serious concern'

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.

Working group

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.

Comments (17)


from Denver Colo

I fought beside, and against, the Vietnamese
and would bet money on them against anyone, as long as they have a flow of small-arms, anti-armor and anti-air. The Chinese will control the seas, unless USA steps in, but that only gives them control of what land the sea guns can reach. China used 600,000 in last invasion (I could be wrong on the number), and lost 15% in one month. This time the USA re-supply would have time to arrive, and China's losses would exceed 50%. China should go for it: I'll back Charlie....anytime.

Oct 18, 2018 12:51 AM

Anonymous Reader

Vietnamese people keep screaming that China dominated them for over a thousand years and how brutally China had treated them in the past. I think this is big political bluffing to make people believe that Vietnamese are nice people who suffered much from the occupation by China.

For over a thousand years ruling over Vietnam, if China was as brutal as Hitler, Hirohito or Bin Laden, the country of Vietnam would have been completely disappeared from the world map since more than a thousand years ago. The main reason why Vietnam still exists today is not that they had fought successfully to gain their independence but that the foreign policy of Chinese Kingdom in the past was hundred times softer than that of the colonialist countries in the recent 600 years. China’s foreign policies throughout many dynasties had been quite similar, it requested the neighboring countries to pay tribute to China every year with an agreement to keep peace between the nations. This type of demand seemed to be unfair to the neighboring countries but it was indeed a way to show that the surrounding countries are not becoming a threat to the national security of Chinese Kingdom.

People should read about the history of Vietnam after it gained independence from China during the 10th century. The original Vietnam is in the North part, the middle part belonged to Cham people (closely related to Malayan ethnics, not Vietnamese) and the South part (Cochinchina) was owned by Cambodia. During 14th to 17th centuries, Vietnamese dynasties of Ly, Tran and Nguyen kept invaded Cham territory, moved Vietnamese people southward, conducted bloody mass killings on Cham people and finally wiped out the Cham kingdom during mid of 17th century. Since then, only few Cham people were left over. But Vietnam had eliminated their country, destroyed their cultural structures and marginalized their ethnicity.

When France colonized Indochina, it made Cochinchina part of Vietnam instead, Cambodians then lost their right to access the sea via Mekong River. For many years already, Cambodian government had been trying to appeal the land loss issue to UN without any success. Do you think Vietnam will admit that Cochichina belonged to Cambodia and return the land? Vietnam also seized some border villages of Cambodia during its invasion to overthrow the Khmer Rouge government and set up puppet governments in both Cambodia and Laos to secure its political and economic controls over the two countries.

Vietnamese never know the truth about their history because their school history books hide away the information that may create negative thinking in their people. Their education systems keeps fanning the fire of hatred and discrimination against China and Chinese people to push their people nationalism to the extreme. This shows that Vietnamese are simply as racist as other racist people in the world.

In the recent past, Vietnam had been colonized by France, Japan and then USA to the mid and south. Its war against USA would have been failed more than 40 years ago without the help from China and Russia. But now Vietnam turns back to USA for military support against China, this reveals the flip-flopping characteristics of Vietnamese government.

Is Vietnam a nice guy as their people always claim? People should objectively examine its history facts!

Sep 11, 2015 12:25 PM


from Lathrop

The question is what side will Vietnam join if china went to war with the united states?

Oct 02, 2014 04:09 PM


from Lathrop

I think your underestimating the Vietnamese. first of all Vietnam been in more wars and battles than china ever had infact china hardly have any battle or war experience. so if your looking at the point china may when because of more modern and sophisticated weapons and man power if its an all out war. maybe but Vietnam isn't stupid the united states went to war with Vietnam also with highly modernized weapons of the period and look what happened to us. they didn't have all the modern mechanized equipment until toward the end. they won by neutrician and gorilla tactics hit run thrust pull back and so forth. plus they had a goal china depends on sheer numbers to win only because they don't know anything else they never been like I said in a major war Vietnam been fighting wars since they ever existed they beat the French, the Japanese and china and America. so what that tell you...

Oct 02, 2014 04:02 PM

Anonymous Reader


Jun 17, 2014 05:41 AM

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