Last week's naval confrontation between Vietnam and China involved an old and unresolved territorial dispute in the South China Sea. For decades, the Communist neighbors have sparred over the islets. However, Hanoi's high-risk response led to the most dangerous clash since the bloody 1979 China-Vietnam border war.
The Vietnam-China Paracel Islands dispute -- Chinese calls the chain of 30 islets the Xisha -- definitely pre-dates Russia's invasion and annexation of territory long coveted by the Kremlin: Crimea.
The imperial seizure of a neighboring region, which the invading state swiftly absorbs as sovereign territory, is an old and dangerous human activity. In the second half of the 20th century, nuclear weapons and firm U.S. leadership by in large checked this behavior in Europe and East Asia.
Crimea, however, already serves as a 21st-century political-psychological precedent. Vietnam and other nations confronting Chinese land grabs cannot help but notice the Kremlin's remarkably cost-free use of military, economic and diplomatic power to forward imperial expansion. Russia's decision to completely ignore the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (guaranteeing Ukrainian territorial integrity) stunned the Obama Administration's "smart diplomats." They fervently believed paper documents stopped dictators. They don't. No wonder Eastern Europeans fear future Kremlin imperial adventurism.
Vietnam's vigorous reaction last week sends the message that it will not submit to any sort of Crimean Precedent. China triggered the incident. Seventy to 80 Chinese vessels escorted a giant oil-drilling ship into disputed waters. Hanoi claimed the Chinese flotilla included seven armed Chinese coast guard and navy ships. The rig anchored 120 miles from the Vietnamese coast. Vietnam claims a 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone. Invoking the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Vietnam accused China of "illegally deploying" the rig within Hanoi's EEZ and dispatched 30 Vietnamese boats to challenge the intrusion. Chinese and Vietnamese patrol boats and trawlers circled the rig. Several collided. Chinese ships employed water cannons. Vietnam claimed a Chinese boat rammed a Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel.
Mayhem at sea? Yes, mayhem on the edge of war.
Austin Hill is an Author, Consultant, and Host of "Austin Hill's Big World of Small Business," a syndicated talk show about small business ownership and entrepreneurship. He is Co-Author of the new release "The Virtues Of Capitalism: A Moral Case For Free Markets." , Author of "White House Confidential: The Little Book Of Weird Presidential History," and a frequent guest host for Washington, DC's 105.9 WMAL Talk Radio.