Potential flashpoint for U.S. and China in the Pacific: Vietnam

But now a new challenge looms for the United States: a rising China as demonstrated by the totality of its power — its geographical proximity to the South China Sea and environs; its economic heft, making it the largest trading partner of most if not all of the littoral nations (despite economic troubles in China itself); and its expanding submarine fleet. Beijing has been buying smart, investing in subs, ballistic missiles, and space and cyber warfare as part of a general defense build-up. China has no intention of going to war with the United States, but it does seek to impede in time of crisis U.S. military access to the South China Sea and the rest of maritime Asia. From my travels I have seen that this has led to the use of the term “Finlandization” throughout Southeast Asia, whereby China, through the combination of its economic and military power, will undermine the sovereignty of countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, all of which are de facto or de jure U.S. allies.

The country that is the biggest target for China is Vietnam, whose seaboard forms the western edge of the South China Sea and whose economically dynamic population of 87 million makes it a future maritime Turkey, a midlevel power in its own right. If China can “Finlandize” Vietnam, Beijing will in practical terms capture the South China Sea. This explains Washington’s increasing military and interest in Hanoi. Whereas Vietnam and other littoral countries claim parts of the South China Sea, China cites a “historic” nine-dashed line that encompasses almost the entire sea itself.

Governmental and policy elites in Beijing recognize the need to compromise on the “cow’s tongue,” as the nine-dashed line is called, but nationalistic elements in China won’t let them, at least not yet. The Chinese are simply unable to psychologically divorce their claims on the nearby South China Sea from the territorial depredations directed against China by the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To Chinese officials, the South China Sea represents blue national soil.