Beijing asserts that, based on historical research, the southern South China Sea and all its resources belong to China. Its newly hyped nine-dashed territorial claim line demarks its territory, and China has deployed fishing boats, maritime police vessels, and naval ships to drive the point home.
Vietnam considers these waters, what it calls the Eastern Sea, as home, and also well within its 200-mile UN Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Both it and the Philippines hotly contest China's moves, and Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia have done so too, albeit more quietly.
China knew deploying Marine Oil 981 would infuriate Vietnam, so it sent some 80 ships to protect it. Vietnam counter deployed 29 coast guard and naval vessels, many of which were rammed and sprayed with water cannons by the Chinese armada.
What's it all mean?
First, from a global strategic point of view, Beijing is acting in concert with its newest ally, Russia. The two have formed a strategic alliance over the past three years, however tenuous it might be, to counter US influence. As Russia seizes the Crimea and buzzes the Western theater with Bear bombers, China is acting similarly in the East. It's a global pincer movement using asymmetric warfare, which in this case is highly calculated minimal force and subterfuge. Brilliantly, it's not enough to trigger a US military reaction, but it's enough to further Russia and China's goals. This is partially spurred by the Obama Administration scrapping its ability to fight a two-theater war. China and Russia are spreading out US attention and resources. From the classic "36 Strategies," the Chinese call this, "Disturb the water and catch a fish."
Second, China sees the US in strategic rapid retreat as a global power. China perceives scores of U.S. national security failures such as Iraq (leaving too soon,) Afghanistan (COIN is too hard), Libya (failed state post "leading from behind"), and Yemen (al Qaeda's new base despite copious drone strikes.) Beijing figures Washington couldn't decipher Pakistan, "frienemy" to America and quasi ally of Beijing. It also deems President Obama's engagement policy with the Middle East touted in the Cairo speech of 2009 has failed because of increased Islamist jihadist terrorism and all the Arab Springs that went sour. The South China Sea, then, is there for the taking. The Chinese call this strategic concept, "Watch the fires burning across the river," as in let an opponent exhaust himself militarily, and then make your move.
Third, regarding regional strategy, while China sees America as increasingly weakening, it's nevertheless alarmed at Secretary of Defense Hagel's Asia tour, which is putting "meat on the bones" of the Asia pivot with defense agreements and security assistance. This includes beefing up annual military exercises with Southeast Asian allies such the Philippines where Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder) began on May 5th. As such, China's provocations are, in effect, attempts to slip inside America's traditional "regional engagement haymaker" with an "asymmetric warfare straight punch." If it does so quickly now, China believes it will be harder for America to help its ASEAN allies later.
Fourth, China fears in an increasingly powerful Vietnam. Its economy is growing. Hanoi is building up its army and navy to defend its lifeblood -- the Eastern Sea -- the centerpiece of Vietnam's shipping, fisheries, and energy sector. Hanoi also knows the whole country is immediately accessible to invasion and strike from the sea.
China much prefers a docile and obedient Vietnam according to its traditional Confucian and Middle Kingdom-based national security ideals. It recalls its 1979 punitive invasion of northern Vietnam when Hanoi had the fourth largest army in the world. Vietnam gave little ground, and each side sustained about 30,000 killed in about a month's worth of fighting. Reducing Vietnam's bourgeoning strength then, is the smart play in Beijing's view.
Where do things go from here in the South China Sea? Seemingly, it will get worse. No side is backing down. China is moreover making similar moves regarding maritime claims with Japan. Unless cooler heads in Beijing prevail, these troubles could lead to a terrible miscalculation.
A cornered Vietnam could lash out much harder than Beijing might imagine. A loosely allied ASEAN is being forced together by China's actions, which is opposite its end goals. Japan is pushing back and rearming. America is by no means so wilted and wounded that Pacific Command and the US Navy are out of action.
China seems blinded by "China rising," its gleaming national pride, and its resounding economic success. It is in danger, then, of violating its own strategic adage, "Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof," meaning it's on a path to isolate itself, militarily, by acting too hastily. Brighter Chinese strategists would help cool the situation immeasurably.
Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations.