Why Has China Become More Aggressive Toward Vietnam?

The South China Sea is an area that's said to be rich in resources. Steve Inskeep talks to Robert Kaplan about the tension between China and Vietnam over the sea, and whether it may escalate.

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The writer Robert Kaplan wrote a book about the South China Sea. He calls it "Asia's Cauldron." And we talked about why it would be that China could slowly claim seascapes there using oil rigs, water canons and ship collisions.

I wonder if part of the Chinese thinking in a situation like that might simply be, you know you don't want a war with China 'cause we're a lot bigger than you and therefore, we can do everything short of war to push you around because we think we have rights here. Is that possibly what the Chinese are thinking?

ROBERT KAPLAN: That's exactly what they're thinking. They're thinking that the Vietnamese essentially cannot fire at these ships, cannot sink these ships, that the Vietnamese are not going to attack the oil rig. The Chinese are also assuming that the United States, while it might issue a strong statement or two, is certainly not going to get into a conflict with China over Vietnam; and neither are oil companies, given that there's just so much more business in China than in Vietnam.

INSKEEP: And is this an occasion where the old saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law applies; the fact that China would be there drilling oil means that in effect, it's going to become Chinese territory?

KAPLAN: Yes. It's just another layer of appropriation of contested sea space. Also, another thing China is doing - remember, President Obama was recently in the area shoring up alliances with Japan, with the Philippines, with Malaysia; and China is essentially saying here, we were not impressed.

INSKEEP: Let's pull back and figure out the broader region here. The South China Sea is an area that you have written about where there are quite a few countries - right? - that claim some part of it or all of it.

KAPLAN: Yes. Several countries' claims overlap with those of other countries and because it's disputed, there's been limited energy exploration, even though it is assumed that there are significant energy finds in the water. And keep in mind that China's ultimate strategic gain is to dominate the South China Sea so that it can then have easy access to the Indian Ocean and the wider Pacific in a similar way that the United States, by dominating the Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th century, made the United States a world power.

INSKEEP: Now, just to be fair to China, we are talking about a body of water that's called the South China Sea that's right off the Chinese coast. Is it possible that they are asserting their claim to the South China Sea because they have a legitimate claim?

KAPLAN: That's exactly what they say, and they claim that they're doing nothing, asserting nothing that the United States did not assert in the Caribbean a hundred or so years ago.

INSKEEP: Meaning that just as the United States effectively dominates the Caribbean, China expects to dominate the South China Sea.

KAPLAN: Yes. And it's doing it surreptitiously, step by subtle step, by putting an oil rig here, sending out Coast Guard cutters there - all to gradually gain dominance without ever having to fire a shot, and especially never having to engage the United States Navy in conflict.

INSKEEP: Are U.S. officials deeply concerned about this, ones that you speak with?

KAPLAN: Yes, they are, because the United States is committed - officially, unofficially - to the defense of Japan, the defense of Taiwan, the defense of South Korea, the defense of the Philippines. And if it looks as if the United States naval and air power is increasingly less relevant to what China is actually doing in these seas, these countries will then have to re-evaluate their own alliances with the United States and may have to make deals with China.

INSKEEP: Is there a genuine risk of war here?

KAPLAN: I do not believe so. There's a pattern of formulaic posturing where China sends an oil rig, the Vietnamese send Coast Guard vessels. They fire water cannons. They ram each other. They make statements. They back off. It goes out of the news for a while. But the danger is that when you compete for status and you posture, there's a chance that things will get out of hand; that there will be an incident, and neither side will be able to back down. So you could get into a war by accident, almost.

INSKEEP: Robert Kaplan, thanks very much.

KAPLAN: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's the chief geopolitical analyst for Strafor.

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