It's true that Vietnam is trying to manufacture a war scare over the Spratly Islands, a large archipelago that sits atop very rich oil reserves in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese navy has conducted a live-fire exercise to flex its military muscle in a show of force against the People's Republic of China. The People's Liberation Army retaliated in kind by sending its naval flotilla to the Spratlys, whose largest and only habitable island is under control of the Republic of China.
At least six countries — including Taiwan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines — claim sovereignty over the Spratlys, known in Chinese as Nansha Jundao . The only habitable island of the chain was first occupied by the Japanese shortly before World War II and what the Japanese called Nagashimawas renamed Taipingafter an R.O.C. warship of that name that brought a small contingent to the islet to take over after the war. The Japanese placed the whole group under jurisdiction of Takao-shu, which is the present-day special municipality of Kaohsiung.
Taiwan isn't much concerned, though tensions are mounting over the Spratlys. The Ministry of National Defense denied on Saturday that there's a plan to provide Hai-oumissile boats and M41A3 tanks to the coast guard personnel stationed on Taiping Island. Nor will the R.O.C. Navy stage a maneuver at the end of this month, an MND spokesman pointed out. There's no need whatsoever to take any such action, because it's just a Hanoi-fomented war scare. Taiwan withdrew marines from Taiping in 1999, and coast guard personnel replaced them.
We are positive that no armed conflict will occur over the Spratlys. Despite the hollow saber-rattling, Vietnam and the Philippines, who claim uninhabited isles of the archipelago, have no stomach for a war against Taiwan and China. The Vietnamese were defeated by China in 1974 and ousted from the Paracel Islands and Xisha-jundaothat lie south of Hainan and quite near Danang in southern Vietnam. A brief sea encounter took place between the two countries over the Spratlys a few years ago, and the Vietnamese were trounced. In land battles, the Vietnamese may outdo the People's Liberation Army; and in fact, they did in a brief war with the PRC under Deng Xiaoping in 1989. Hanoi knows full well it's no match for the PLA Navy.
So the Vietnamese wish to draw the United States into any possible fray with Beijing. At one time, Washington was willing to back up Hanoi. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said so, though not in so many words, at an ASEANmeeting in Hanoi earlier this year. But Washington has changed its mind. A U.S. State Department spokesman told the press not long ago that the United States did not support the Vietnamese sea maneuver, which isn't conducive to the reduction of tensions in the region.
Now that the U.S. has refused to side with Vietnam in any armed conflict with China, the only thing Hanoi can and should do is scale down its defense buildup. It's planning to buy six Kirov submarines and 12 Sukhoi 30 fighters from Russia. Israel is said to be selling short-range ballistic missiles to Vietnam. There's no reason why such expensive military hardware should be acquired for a shadowboxing match with China. Instead, Hanoi should spend its hard currency to promote economic growth and enable the Vietnamese people to live better.
But there is one thing the United States can and should do. Washington must call an international conference on the security of sea lanes in the South China Sea. Beijing is against American participation in regional meetings to hammer out plans to shelve the issue of sovereignty and jointly tap the oil resources of the Spratlys, but seems ready to support a Washington conference on the security of the South China Sea. The United States should invite Taipei to take part in that meeting.