Spratly war a bad idea, especially for Vietnam
When tension mounts between two people holding guns, it’s always fun until someone loses an island.
In this case, a string of islands. The remote, rocky and barely habitable Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Less than two square miles of islands scattered over 165,000 square miles of ocean. WTF, as my kids say.
The Spratlys are claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines, with several small military outposts maintained on islands in the atoll. It's worth having a look at the Spratlys on Google Earth. Volunteers are no doubt rendered unconscious and transported in chains before being left behind to staff the military bases.
There are a couple of fishing villages and not much else. The most important thing about the islands is the need for passing vessels to avoid hitting them.
Until the discovery of oil and gas deposits. That makes the islands more attractive, and every so often the claimants squabble over percieved infringements of one anothers' soverignty.
Recently, two of the main belligerents, China and Vietnam, began rattling their sabers louder than usual. In May, China warships reportedly fired at Vietnamese fishing boats operating in Spratly waters. Vietnam also accused Chinese vessels of cutting cables on its survey ships.
Then Vietnam conducted live fire drills in the Spratlys, which was denounced by China. Media in both countries has been taking an aggressive nationalistic stance, whipping up patriotic fervor.
It is unlikely that war will break out between China and Vietnam – the last one between the neighbors was a border war in 1979 in which China finished second – but if the shooting starts, it will probably be a naval battle in the traditions of the past, albeit with more sophisticated weaponry
Unfortunately for Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China Navy is way ahead. PLAN has 63 submarines, including six nuclear subs. It has 26 destroyers, 56 frigates, 172 missile boats, 427 submarine chasers, 41 mine warfare vessels and heaps of troop ships and landing craft (not that many troops would fit on the islands).
Vietnam’s warship inventory is around 120 and the country is spending heavily to upgrade the capabilities of its vessels. The country plans to buy six Russian-built Kilo-class attack submarines, which will radically ramp up its attack capabilities but the subs still have to be built.
Vietnam has hundreds of smaller warships and gunboats but most of it’s naval capability is geared towards coastal defence.
It is doubtful either navy has the logistics capabilities to wage a serious battle so far from land. Still, head-to-head, if Vietnam gets involved in a naval conflict with China it is doomed to fail.
In any case, war would be a complete disaster for the region, for the global economy and for anyone unfortunate enough to have to fight and die over a bunch of inconsequential rocks in the middle of nowhere.
Let’s hope sanity trumps sovereignty and the two sides work out their differences around a fish barbeque on Itu Aba Island rather than in a naval battle offshore.