Spratly Islands and Crimea: The Fight for Self-Interest

The current Crimean crisis lends itself for comparison to potential conflicts elsewhere around the globe, particularly the Spratly Islands dispute.

If the world fails in resolving the Ukrainian crisis, claimant states in the Spratlys dispute mighty feel emboldened to expand their existing claims, opening the possibility to a state seizing possessions from another claimant. If such a possibility were in fact to occur, it would mark a serious escalation of force by claimants who so far have restrained themselves to minor skirmishes.

Located in the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines, the islets, atolls, reefs, and rocks are claimed by Brunei, China and Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The archipelago is believed to sit atop significant reserves of natural resources, as well as rich fishing grounds.

Although scuffles have and continue to break out between claimant states, a tentative “peace” – insofar as there has not been any dramatic escalation of force – between states has allowed for the possibility of resolving the disputes without further conflict.

In Ukraine, the crisis is largely one born from the country’s failing economy, exacerbated by ethnic divisions, consequently dividing the country between western and eastern halves. In the west, ethnic Ukrainians favor closer ties with Europe, whereas in the east, ethnic Russians favor Moscow.

Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine, transferred from the then-Soviet Union in 1954.The current flashpoint between the US/Europe and Russia, reflects this divide with its largely ethnic Russian population. On March 6, the Crimean parliament voted in favor of joining Russia. Moscow has not yet responded to this recent development. However, the Ukrainian government, the US and the EU quickly condemned the move.

Although the US and major European powers have denounced Russia’s involvement in Crimea, they remain divided on how best to respond. Whereas the US has considered the possibility of imposing economic sanctions against Russia, Europe, especially Germany, which imports about a third of its natural gas from Russia, has not been as receptive to the idea.

As the fight for Ukraine’s future continues, the ongoing Spratly Islands dispute remains, and will likely remain for some time, unresolved.

Western interests in the South China Sea are not as deep as they are in Ukraine, except to ensure that the sea lanes remain free. About a third of global crude oil passes through the South China Sea, with the Strait of Malacca connecting Asian consumers with African and the Middle Eastern suppliers. Should traffic be restricted, it would have grave consequences for markets not only in Asia but the US, as well.

With China intent on asserting itself in Asia-Pacific, seizing a small island in the Spratlys here or there from the Philippines or Vietnam should prove sufficient. Given the Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, however, Beijing may instead consider poaching an island or two from Vietnam.

Beyond a demonstration of force, China would have greater reasons for flexing its muscle. If Beijing proves successful in expanding its possessions in the Spratlys, it would allow China to solidify its presence in the South China Sea at the expense of competing and regional states, including the US, expelling undesirables and securing a sphere of influence.

In such an event, Vietnam’s leaders would find themselves in a particularly suffocating bind. To do nothing in response would paint Hanoi in the eyes of its citizens, already mistrustful of their government, as incompetent at best and traitorous at worse.

For Hanoi, conflict with China is undesirable. Vietnam’s proximity and economic dependence on China means that Hanoi must walk a fine line. Any perception that Hanoi is a puppet or accountable to Beijing would jeopardize the Communist Party’s authority, to say nothing of any potential schism within the party, dividing nationalists and those Communists in favor of ties with China.

If Vietnam’s leaders fail to establish a narrative and control the flow of information following such an incident, they may find themselves thrown out of office the same way Ukrainians ejected former president Viktor Yanukovych from office.

If China were to seize any of Vietnam’s possessions in the Spratlys, Hanoi would have no choice but to respond in kind as best they could. For the Vietnamese people, the loss of independence is a far greater cost than the tangibles and intangibles of economic realities; and a government that fails to protect and preserve its country’s territorial integrity would be seen as surrendering this independence.

Of course, all of this assumes such a scenario occurs. Lest China suffers from internal instability or some domestic crisis, Beijing has no need to turn its people’s attention outward. Moreover, such a move on China’s part would invite increased international scrutiny and greater American presence in the region, which Beijing has sought to avoid.

The crisis in Ukraine and Spratly Islands dispute bears little resemblance. However, when the smoke finally settles over Ukraine, a question will finally be answered: Just how far will a country go to protect its interests?

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.