To the alarm of the Vietnamese government, China is apparently building a surface-to-air missile base 20 kilometers from its border with Vietnam, as a long-term precaution and near-term warning to neighboring countries, observers say.
A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said via the VnExpress International news website Feb. 4 that her government would “verify” whether China had completed a missile base in the Guangxi region near the Vietnamese border.
The nongovernmental organization South China Sea News had posted satellite photos showing that base and another, 70 kilometers from the Sino-Vietnamese border. One image showed a formation of surface-to-air missiles, radars and six launchers along a military runway.
Preparations for conflict
China aims to fortify defenses near borders with countries such as Vietnam that have battled China in recent history, analysts say. The two communist neighbors fought a land war in the 1970s and have come to blows over disputed tracts of the South China Sea, including a particularly deadly upset in 1974 and a boat-ramming incident seven years ago.
“This is a signal that China is preparing for war along its borders,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. “It’s a sign that China is preparing for war, maybe not today, not tomorrow but in the long term.”
China weathered border skirmishes last year with India following increased military presence and bristled as the navy of its superpower rival the United States passed warships 10 times last year in seas near the Chinese coast. Potential “competition” with the United States would draw in other Asian countries, Vuving said.
In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged troops to think about readying for war.
The border with Vietnam has extra “potential for conflict” because it is along the disputed South China Sea, Vuving said.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the South China Sea. Beijing says 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea falls under its flag and cites historical usage records to support that claim. The sea is prized for fisheries, undersea fuel reserves and marine shipping lanes.
China has solidified its maritime claims over the past decade by reclaiming land to build up tiny islets for military use.
Warning to Southeast Asia
PetroVietnam is proposing new natural gas exploration projects in the South China Sea, so the nearby missile base could be a “warning from China,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Vietnamese officials are planning to explore with Japanese firms in the contested sea despite the failure in July of a PetroVietnam project with Russian oil giant Rosneft Oil Co. following standoffs between drilling rigs and Chinese maritime forces, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post news website reported in January.
By installing missiles, “they wanted to preempt and, if necessary, stop the other South China Sea claimants from embarking on those offshore exploration projects within claims that China is making,” Koh said.
China has the strongest armed forces in Asia and has particularly grown its navy over the past decade.
Vietnam, unlike other maritime claimant states, speaks out against China and accepts less investment from Beijing than its neighbors. A missile base would “reinforce distrust” of China in Vietnam and prompt leaders in Hanoi to increase military defenses, Vuving said.
Leaders in Hanoi are likely to raise the apparent missile base with China quietly in the interest of stable broader relations, he added. The two countries often smooth over disputes at the party-to-party level.
The Southeast Asian country will not set aside military issues in favor of investment ties with China, however, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines hedge on pressing China over its maritime claims because all three accept investment money.
“Vietnam is the only holdout here, whereby national security considerations seem to be uppermost in their minds,” Chong said.