Books | Challenge and Cooperate

In this chapter, writer Bernard Moreland compares the responses of Vietnam and the Philippines as case studies in dispute management with China. It hold valuable lessons for India

China Maritime Grey Zone OperationsThe responses of China’s neighbors to Beijing’s maritime expansionism offer a spectrum of case studies, from Japan’s uncompromising resistance to Malaysia’s willful ignorance of China’s seizure of its sovereign maritime rights. Among the countries aggressed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam have responded with policies that are nearly diametrically opposite, offering a rare natural experiment in the efficacy of different approaches. In hindsight, Vietnam’s response seems to be the more effective of the two because it pragmatically leveraged Vietnam’s strengths rather than resorting to ideological concepts such as international law or relying on foreign alliances.


Vietnam — A Thousand years of Independent Management of Its China Problem

Hanoi’s management of the colossus to its north is informed by Vietnam’s long experience with China and its independence from alliances. Vietnam is unusual among China’s gray zone victims because — like China — it is led by dictatorship, an ancient form of governance that was once the global norm and is now in resurgence. Similar to the Chinese dictatorship, authoritarian Vietnam until recently maintained expansive South China Sea claims that were prima facie untenable under international law.

China’s aggression toward Vietnam has followed the historical pattern of how dictatorships usually deal with each other, with straightforward combat resulting in the establishment of dominance and norms. The two parties will achieve mutual understanding of China’s supremacy through warfare with each other, but that will fade over time until China recalibrates the relationship with renewed combat, usually in response to increasing disobedience of subordinate Vietnam. The most recent examples occurred in 1974, 1979, and 1988, and came close to repeating in 2014 after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) ordered a Chinese-flagged floating oil platform to drill inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In historical contexts, this relationship is often described as suzerainty. Beijing and Hanoi refer to it euphemistically with terms such as “comprehensive cooperation.”

More than any other in East Asia, the Sino-Vietnamese maritime relationship has characteristics that would have been recognized by Thucydides, who wrote in his imagined recounting of the Melian Dialogue that “the strong do what they will while the weak do what they must.” China has tended to act opportunistically, recognizing power vacuums and moving quickly to take advantage to them. China established its presence in the Paracel Islands by attacking Vietnamese forces there in 1974 as the United States was withdrawing from Vietnam. The PRC first established its foothold in the Spratly Islands by using warship anti-aircraft cannon to massacre about sixty Vietnamese sailors standing in waist-deep water at Johnson South Reef in 1988. The only thing “gray” about that encounter was that China claimed that its naval destroyers were engaging in a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization mission when they slaughtered the Vietnamese. The Soviets at that point were withdrawing their support for Vietnam.

China’s gray zone aggression toward Vietnam in the maritime realm has evolved from the naked military violence (followed by disinformation) of 1988 toward intimidation backed up by discreet threats of violence. In 2007, China used governance cutters with strengthened hulls to ram the Vietnamese-contracted British Petroleum oil survey ship Geo Surveyor working in disputed waters. Vietnam’s smaller coast guard cutters were overwhelmed by the larger Chinese ships, which had prepared for the aggression, and Vietnam was forced to suspend its oil prospecting efforts in areas where Vietnam’s excessive claims overlapped China’s. Beijing’s methods were internationally unacceptable, but Hanoi lacked credible allies to help it counter Chinese aggression.

Although the international community formed a fleet to enforce flag state rights under international law in the Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates, it lacked the stomach for similar international enforcement of Vietnam’s coastal state rights in the South China Sea against Beijing’s aggression.

Vietnam and China subsequently entered into delineation and joint patrol arrangements in the Gulf of Tonkin, a norm that has held to this day. Elsewhere, however, Chinese cutters continued to harass, ram, or cut cables of Vietnamese ships attempting to exploit Vietnam’s offshore hydrocarbon resources.

In 2014 China ordered a deep-water oil platform, Hai yang Shi You (HYSY) 981, owned by state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company, to drill in Vietnam’s EEZ. Vietnam responded by provoking anti-Chinese outrage in its citizenry, unfortunately triggering lethal riots that killed both Chinese and non-Chinese civilians. Vietnam also encouraged aggressive behavior against the oil rig by its fishing fleet.

Hanoi’s behavior was extremely risky. It showed staggering boldness in confronting and provoking China’s superior and better prepared forces, but it risked tipping the dispute into combat, which — as in all previous Chinese recalibrations — would have certainly gone badly for Vietnam.

By some measures, the Vietnamese fared poorly. Hundreds of Vietnamese fishing boats put to sea, but none penetrated the Chinese security cordon. Chinese militia boats and coast guard cutters used water cannon that shattered pilothouse windows on Vietnamese boats, swept their electronics and antennas, and in some cases broke bones. At least two Vietnamese fishing boats were deliberately rammed and sunk by China’s People’s Armed Force Maritime Militia (PAFMM) fishing boats miles away from the rig, with at least one Vietnamese fisherman killed. HYSY 981 completed its test drilling and returned to China unharmed.

Despite tactical setbacks, Vietnam was more strategically successful than simple box scores might suggest. The PRC was forced to deploy a security cordon comprising dozens of vessels and to prepare expensive military options for response if Vietnam used force, as at times seemed likely. Military feints against a superior power are dangerous, and the Vietnamese civil response violated international norms that condemn sovereign provocation of civilian mobs for sovereign purposes — but it proved remarkably effective. Vietnam’s provocative and inflammatory strategy, well outside international norms of comity and civility, significantly raised the cost for Beijing of China’s aggression. While China demonstrated it can put any vessel anywhere in Vietnam’s EEZ, Vietnam showed that China cannot drill for oil in Vietnam’s EEZ without a security force that would render the effort sharply uneconomical. China has not repeated the event.


Philippines — Complete Reliance on Alliances and Law Complete Failure

The Philippine population and gross domestic product are similar to those of Vietnam, with the Philippines being slightly larger and richer. Unlike Vietnam, the Philippines has a strong ally in the United States, but Manila lacks Hanoi’s long experience of intimidation and invasion by China and brinkmanship in response. The Philippines responded to China’s aggression with a law- and alliance-centered strategy befitting a measured, rising, responsible nation. It was the polar opposite of Vietnam’s insurgent strategy. And its failure was total.

In 1992, under pressure from the Philippine senate, the United States abandoned its bases in the Philippines, and China in 1994 began seizing Philippine coastal state rights at Mischief Reef, well within the Philippine EEZ. (As in Vietnam’s case, each of China’s maritime annexations has taken place in a power vacuum created by a withdrawing power.) The Philippines long entreated the United States for support against the Chinese encroachment. U.S secretary of defense for international and security affairs Joseph Nye and Pacific Forces commander Adm. Joseph Prueher issued vaguely supportive statements in the latter half of the decade but provided no operational support. Mischief Reef was de facto surrendered to Chinese control.

Beijing had often expressed its ambitions to seize Scarborough Reef, a former U.S. administered ordnance range that was also in the Philippine EEZ, and so Manila entreated the United States for support in defending it. The United States encouraged the Philippines to defend its coastal rights by routinely administering its EEZ. The U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty was signed in 1953 and thus does not consider the EEZ rights established in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1983, but it is triggered by an attack on Philippine forces. The Philippine navy, which like many navies has fisheries regulation authority, performed eleven fisheries regulatory boardings there after 2000, and likely believed that the United States would deter Chinese military escalation against the Philippines.

Beijing complained bitterly about the Philippine regulatory boardings at Scarborough Reef, so Manila suspended them in 2007. China responded by stepping up encroachment at Scarborough with its own State Oceanic Administration (SOA) cutters when its maritime expansionism campaign escalated after the 2008 Olympics. By 2010 Chinese SOA cutters were sailing to Scarborough Reef regularly, and China’s Fisheries Law Enforcement was subsidizing PAFMM vessels to fish there. Shallow divers from the militia boats rooted giant clams from Scarborough’s expansive coral reefs by mechanically breaking out the coral to harvest the large bivalves, leaving a growing swath of dead and destroyed reef visible from civilian space imagery. While baiting Manila with reef destruction, Beijing equipped its PAFMM vessels with Beidou electronic receivers, essentially satellite smartphones, so that they could summon support immediately if the Philippines attempted regulatory intervention.

The flag officer in charge of the Philippine navy, Vice Admiral Alexander Pama walked into Beijing’s trap on April 8, 2012, when he ordered the Philippine navy frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar to conduct a fisheries boarding of Chinese fishing boats loaded with tons of giant clams. He did not know that the boats were militia or that China had prepared carefully for exactly the circumstance. China immediately dispatched large SOA cutters to the reef, demanded Philippine withdrawal, and escalated People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy (PLAN) intimidation of the Philippines over the next two months. On April 26 the Chinese ministry of defense spokesperson declared that “the military was ready to fulfill its duty to safeguard China’s territory in the South China Sea,” and military media and websites published accounts of a PLAN amphibious task group in the area. The last time such a warning had been issued was during the 1996 Taiwan missile crisis.

Unlike Hanoi, Manila was disinclined to risk combat against the PLA. The United States further restrained Philippine defense of its coastal state rights due to fears that Philippine sovereign interests would drag Washington into a conflict and harm U.S interests in its relationship with China (An irony fiction could not invent: the Obama administration was ignoring China’s systematic reef destruction in part because it wanted an atmosphere conducive to Beijing’s accession to an international environmental agreement then under negotiation.)

In the middle of the crisis, U.S. State Department lawyers legally reclassified Scarborough Shoal from a submerged feature in the Philippine EEZ (which has no territorial standing) to an UNCLOS “rock” because it contains an exposed stone about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This designation allowed legal recognition of territory out to the “fringing reefs” around it, which at Scarborough encompasses about forty-four square miles. The U.S military steered clear of the additional twelve miles of territorial waters. Washington subsequently took no position on which country owned the rock even though Beijing had no historical claim and the United States had formerly paid Manila for access to the reef for military training. Although the U.S legal position on the rock changed. The rock itself did not rise, sink, or grow throughout the confrontation. It was there when the U.S and Philippine navies jointly surveyed the reef in 1964.

The United States officially renamed Scarborough Shoal as Scarborough Reef to signal the legal distinction. American diplomats and Pacific Commander Adm. Sam Locklear otherwise publicly remained mute. Washington officially stated that it favored resolution in accordance with international law and did not take a side, but the legal flip-flop resulted in the United States accommodating Beijing’s aggression.

After accurately assessing Washington’s reluctance to get involved in the dispute, Beijing tripled the number of cutters it stationed at the reef. The Chinese cutters began harassing the lone Philippine coast guard cutter that was maintaining the Philippine presence, while Manila’s newspapers published accounts, photographs, and videos of the harassment.

Philippine president Benigno Aquino visited the White House and implored President Barack Obama for support on June 8, 2012. The United States kept its forces away from the dispute, and no operational support was forthcoming for Manila. On June 15, the Philippines was no longer able to maintain its presence and withdrew from the reef. Chinese forces have remained there since.

The United States encouraged Manila to challenge China in international court. The Philippines did, winning on all counts. Beijing, however, led a global campaign to discredit the July 12, 2016, arbitral tribunal ruling, while the United States declined to speak or operate in support of it once it was issued.


Comparing the Two Approaches

Manila and Hanoi responded differently to their respective incidents of Chinese aggression. These differences can be summarized as follows:

  1. Manila beseeched its great power ally, the United States, for support while Hanoi focused its efforts on Beijing.
  2. Hanoi pressured the Chinese rig with numerous coast guard cutters, aircraft, and sovereign-directed fishing boats, while Manila restrained its fishermen and passively monitored the Chinese incursion with one or two coast guard cutters.
  3. Hanoi’s forces at sea engaged in provocative challenges to Chinese coast guard cutters and militia fishing boats in the vicinity around the rig. The Philippines did not.
  4. Vietnam’s Communist party-controlled press stimulated lethal riots that destroyed Chinese factories in Vietnam. Manila urged calm and restraint.
  5. Vietnam’s responses were outside international norms and risked provoking combat with China. Manila’s responses carried little operational risk.
  6. Manila brought suit before the arbitral tribunal, while Vietnam prepared for but declined to pursue international legal remedies.

The outcomes were also different. Vietnam strategically succeeded at discouraging further oil prospecting in its EEZ. The Philippines lost control of Scarborough Reef, and the PLA followed up by dredging and capping with concrete another large coral feature in the Philippine EEZ, Mischief Reef. The PLAN now has a large naval air station on it.

Southeast Asians comparing the Vietnamese and Philippine experiences could draw multiple lesions:

  1. No nation, not even a strong ally, will defend the coastal state rights of another nation.
  2. International law offers little more than moral guidelines when there are no international police to enforce it, but provocation and brinkmanship can at least partially succeed.
  3. Without the protection of international law, there is no substitute for military defense capability and national tolerance for risk.

4    Washington may sacrifice the long-term concrete sovereign interests of its allies for its own short-term symbolic political goals, and nonallied countries can expect no support at all.



Rarely are political scientists gifted with such a clear, nearly simultaneous pair of case studies of responses to a single nation’s aggression. The outcome has been about what political realists would expect. Not only has the U.S. alliance with the Philippines been weakened, but U.S. alliances with other nations have also eroded in recent years due to the loss of credibility.

Hanoi’s passive-aggressive policy of alternating engagement and provocation with Beijing has better served to protect Vietnam’s interests than has Manila’s measured and legal response with heavy reliance on alliances. Regardless of the personalities that lead the Philippines, we would expect that Manila’s failed law-and-alliance responses would evolve to be more like Vietnam’s provoke — and — engage policies. That is what indeed has materialized particularly since a new administration was elected in Manila in 2016.

The two case studies support with evidence the notions that alliances and international law only succeed if they are upheld and that weakness invites aggression. International law has evolved in part to disincentivize weak nations from engaging in destabilizing provocative jungle behavior to protect their sovereignty by providing assurance that strong nations would not take excessive sovereignty away from them. Powerful nations accept constraints in order to shape responsible and predictable behavior among weaker nations, which in turn brings stability and prosperity. To that end, UNCLOS established a standard for the maritime entitlements of all nations; it might not be everything a nation wants but it established a standardized expectation for what every nation would get.

However, Vietnam clearly understands its neighbor to the north. Hanoi never put much faith in either international law or alliances and has always been willing to use every behavior and tool at its disposal to counter China’s intrusivensess. Manila’s conversion came more recently. The Philippines at first relied on its alliance with the United States and appealed to international law to disastrous effect, but it can now see that Hanoi’s provocative approach protects more sovereignty with less cost. International law only works to shape responsible weak-nation behavior if accepted and enforced by large nations. China does not accept its constraints in East Asia. While other large nations demur from challenging it.

Beijing is expanding China’s dominion at the zero-sum expense of its neighbors and in doing so is undermining the stabilizing effect of UNCLOS. China’s erosion of international legal protections is returning us to a world where maritime disputes are resolved through jungle rules. The antidote is as obvious as it has, thus far, seemed unlikely. An economically and militarily powerful nation — it can only be the United States — could lead an international alliance to draw boundaries on the behavior of expansionist hegemons such as China by threatening their access to world markets and introducing military risk to their expansionism — i.e; a return to the post-World War II policies that shaped the greatest period of peace, prosperity, and the expansion of democracy and human rights in human history. Alternatively, Washington could stand by in the hope that either the plain letters of international law will rise from the paper and enforce themselves or that the costs for the collapse of law of the sea will be acceptable. But should these hard-won fruits of U.S. and allied blood and treasure simply be allowed to rot on the vine or fall to the ground unplucked?

Whatever path U.S. leaders choose to take henceforth, the results will ripple far beyond maritime East Asia and echo far into this century and after.

Edited by Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Marinson
China Maritime Study Institute and Naval Institute Press
Pages 324, Price Rs 4,980.00



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