Vietnam is lengthening a military runway on a tiny islet to help hold off a larger, more aggressive China for control in Asia’s widest-reaching sovereignty dispute as other claimants keep quiet or seek negotiations.
The government in Hanoi is extending the runway on one of the Spratly Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, from 762 to 1,005 meters and building new hangars, according to the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The longer runway would allow easier access for the air force’s maritime surveillance aircraft, it said.
Historic use of the sea, strong national pride and a history of deadly conflicts are motivating Vietnam to fortify more than two dozen islands in the chain.
“The Vietnamese have to play a very careful game,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist at Mekong Economics in Hanoi. “They don’t really want to provoke China, but they also can’t just let China do whatever it wants to do.
China has also irritated Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines since 2010 with its quick expansion into the 3.5-million-square-km (1.4 million-square-mile) ocean.
Standing up to China
But other governments normally keep quiet when China passes ships through their maritime zones. Malaysia, for one, hopes to protect its extensive trade and investment relations with the world number two economy, while Brunei is also quiet.
The Philippines, once hostile enough to take the maritime dispute to a world arbitration court, began making peace with China in August. The two sides may now explore jointly for undersea fossil fuels.
Vietnam has already done landfill work on 27 South China Sea islets, more than any other claimant, though China’s land reclamation is grabbing more headlines.
Vietnam has also acquired submarines and spent heavily on military expansion over the past eight years, analysts note.
Unique cause for concern
Vietnam is uniquely wary of China for historical reasons, analysts say. The two sides fought a border war in 1979 and have reported three major clashes at sea. An incident in the Paracel Islands in 1974 sank a South Vietnamese navy ship with the captain on board, killing a total 71 from both sides. A 1988 naval battle left 64 Vietnamese dead.
From 1992 to 1996, Vietnam staved off China’s efforts to explore some of the sea’s islets, but China has taken an upper hand since then despite a 2007 plan in Vietnam to link maritime resources to its coastal economic development.
Two years ago Vietnamese and Chinese vessels rammed each other in the Gulf of Tonkin after China allowed an offshore oil driller to position a rig in overlapping waters. The oil rig incident sparked anti-China riots in Vietnam and left 21 dead. Vietnam protested a Chinese rig using the same waters in April.
“I think, number one, they have very unfortunately experienced in the past that they have had actual military confrontation with China in terms of protecting their maritime interests,” said Andrew Yang, secretary general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.
Vietnamese people have used the South China Sea for hundreds of years, stoking the nationalism behind today’s dispute with China. Before North and South Vietnam were unified in the 1970s, the south maintained military and civilian communities in the Spratlys. Its claims to the ocean now also overlap with Malaysia and the Philippines.
“The Vietnamese leadership still has to be very sensitive and responsive to what the Vietnamese people really feel and want,” he said. “There’s a strong anti-China sentiment and there’s very strong nationalism in Vietnam, so they have to be seen to be pushing back against China but at the same time they realize you can’t poke the bear too often or you get a really bad backlash.”
Vietnamese officials once believed the South China Sea to hold oil and natural gas reserves off their south coast, McCarty said, but they eased away due to the cost of exploration. The country is not “sophisticated” in deep-sea fishing, another common economic reason countries cite for their interest in the South China Sea, he said.
As China builds up tiny disputed islets with the capability of launching planes, Vietnam fears its claims will be harder to defend, McCarty said.
Hanoi seeks peace with Beijing
Still, the country counts China as its top supplier of raw material for a fast-growing manufacturing sector. China is also Vietnam's top trading partner.
The Communist government in Hanoi squelched the 2014 riots in part to keep peace with Beijing. In September, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc pledged to manage their differences over maritime issues.
At the same time, Vietnam is pursuing closer security ties with Japan, India and the United States as a bulwark against China.
“They’ve gone much further than Malaysia and much, much further than the Philippines to be able to represent a deterrent [to China],” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia.
In May the U.S. government lifted a 30-year-old embargo against selling lethal weapons to Vietnam and separately it has offered $18 million in military aid. Japan is also sending maritime patrol boats to Vietnam.
China prefers two-way talks with rival maritime claimants to solve disputes and has lashed out at the United States for intervention.
“Vietnam had long been negotiating bilaterally with China, but Vietnam is different in saying that where third party interests are involved, then they have a right to be involved,” Thayer said.