China's tough neighborhood has gotten just a little bit tougher for China, diplomatically and militarily, and Beijing ought to blame its own political blundering.
Consider South Korea and Vietnam, two of China's more militarily capable neighbors. During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers fought Hanoi's troops. Today, both countries regard that as very ancient history, and they increasingly act as de facto allies. This week, South Korea and Vietnam announced that they will strengthen bilateral defense cooperation and conduct a "strategic dialog" on defense issues. Defense cooperation includes senior officer training exchanges and defense industry collaboration. Shared senior officer training programs are a short policy step away from crafting shared defense plans.
Why the regional embrace? Start with the insight that South Korean and Vietnamese defense planners understand who and what China means by "local."
On March 5, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, addressing China's National People's Congress, observed that the Chinese armed forces' most important task is "to win local wars under Information Age conditions."
Someone needs to tell Premier Wen that even in the Information Age, the old real estate axiom ("location, location, location") still has strategic consequence. The phrase "to win local wars" galvanizes folks located in Seoul and Hanoi, especially when Beijing just boosted its defense budget 11 percent.
The Korean War was -- and is -- very much a local Chinese war. China attacked in late 1950, as U.S. forces pushed north toward the China-Korea border. This lingering conflict may be an Industrial Age relic, but South Korea knows North Korean nuclear weapons could return the peninsula to the Stone Age. China, however, continues to diplomatically shield North Korea's Stalinist regime.
Trust that both China and Vietnam remember their local war of 1979. Chinese leader Deng Xioaping declared that big China would teach little Vietnam a lesson. That border scrape left 20,000 Chinese dead. Having witnessed Vietnamese tactical and operational military superiority, Deng realized that China had a lot to learn. He accelerated China's military modernization efforts.
However, the China-Vietnam 1988 "local" confrontation over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea may be of more immediate relevance, not just for Vietnam and other nations along the South China Sea littoral, but also for Japan and South Korea, which also have maritime boundary and island disputes with China. In March 1988, Chinese and Vietnamese forces battled for control of several islets. China won the skirmishes, evicted the Vietnamese and still maintains control. The battles reprised a Chinese attack in 1974 on the then-South Vietnam-controlled Paracel Islands.
Location, location, location. The islands sit atop oil and gas fields. China claims approximately 80 percent of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Taiwan and even Cambodia claim slices of the seabed. China has established military installations on several disputed islands and reefs, including Mischief Reef, which Manila regards as Filipino territory.
So far, Chinese leaders believe local wrath is worth the reward in local energy resources. Beijing knows that reducing its energy reliance on the fickle Middle Eastern regimes is smart economically and politically. Moreover, potential military competitor India dominates the Indian Ocean shipping lanes plied by tankers bringing Arab, Iranian and African petroleum to China.
Divide and conquer is sharp strategy, but China's domination of the South China Sea may be reducing political divisions among its neighbors. Chinese diplomats have tried to prevent the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) from becoming a military alliance. They have tried to exploit disagreements between Japan and the U.S., and the Philippines and the U.S., to diminish American influence. Beijing smiled when the U.S. Navy left its Filipino bases.
ASEAN nations, however, see China as the imperialist bully. Vietnam is offering oil and gas development contracts to India. Filipinos have new respect for the U.S. Navy. Japan and the U.S. are actively pursuing missile defense programs. Those local wars China wants to win look increasingly complex, with China facing regional alliances fighting on multiple fronts.