Beijing Closes In on Vietnam’s ‘China Beach’

As U.S. warships challenge China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Vietnam moves ever closer to America.

Quynh Anh Nguyen/Getty

DA NANG, Vietnam — The 20 miles of white sand that is My Khe Beach used to be a destination for American soldiers in Vietnam seeking rest and recreation. As it happened, the GI’s called it “China Beach.”

In the decades since, amid the rapid modernization of Vietnam, Da Nang has become a popular international tourist destination. During China’s boom years, Vietnam’s tourism industry was bolstered by masses of Chinese visitors. The People’s Republic has the world’s largest middle class, and those with a little cash to flash are eager to enjoy the trappings of new locales.

Indeed, Da Nang looks a little like a third-tier Chinese city, with constant construction kicking up dust, and huge trucks barreling down wide boulevards along the coastline, but the traces of French colonial architecture and generally laidback vibes warrant a stay lasting a day or two. Chinese tourists, often entire families traveling with a package, would stop off before moving on to the next city.

That has changed. And once again a vague specter of war hangs on the horizon like a distant but threatening storm.

As China expands its military presence and territorial claims in the South China Sea, it is being challenged, not least, by the United States. This week, a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 miles of an artificial reef being built far out in the water, an intentionally provocative American move that Beijing labeled “extremely irresponsible.”

But the real weight of these confrontations falls on the smaller countries along the Sea’s littoral. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in Vietnam.

In May 2014, after completing a drilling assignment, an oil rig operated by state-owned China Oilfield Services Ltd. was parked near Vietnam’s coast. The vessel occupied an area of the South China Sea that was under territorial dispute—the Chinese government claimed the oil rig was merely stopping in China’s own backyard, while their Vietnamese counterparts said the oil rig did not have permission to enter those waters.

Vietnamese patrol boats chased the oil rig around. This kicked off a series of anti-China riots in Vietnam, where protestors attacked and burned factories mostly owned, in fact, by Taiwanese companies.

Almost immediately, flights to Vietnam from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia became lighter. Hotel bookings evaporated. The beaches saw fewer sunbathers. Tour guides were left idle and travel agents were laid off.

Figures from the beginning of this year showed a 40 percent decrease in visitors from China, and over half a million room-nights were lost in 2014. Those numbers didn’t recover, and the National Administration of Tourism has indicated a further 18 percent dip in accrued visitors from China up to September, compared to a year before, leaving Vietnamese cities like Da Nang quieter than they have been in years.

Some Chinese tourists still trickle in, lured by budget plane tickets costing as low as $3 plus tax. But even those flights aren’t always at full capacity. “We only have three occupied rooms right now,” said the manager of one hotel a stone’s throw from the beach. “I was surprised that the political situation stopped so many Chinese tourists from coming.” At popular sightseeing destinations, it’s no longer common to hear guides giving tours in Putonghua.

The horn-locking between Beijing and Hanoi persists. In a bold move, China placed two mobile artillery weapons systems on artificial islands in the disputed zone, breaking a 2002 ASEAN agreement that was signed by the PRC’s then-vice minister of foreign affairs. The weapons were within range of Vietnamese offshore installations. At a news conference in Ho Chi Minh City in May, Sen. John McCain called the development “disturbing and escalatory.” It is not clear whether the mobile units were removed.

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China is tangled in territorial disputes in both the East and South China Seas. In the East China Sea, Beijing claims sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands, which are called Senkaku in Japan. That conflict is the tensest, given the bloody history shared by the two nations.

At the same time, China claims much of the South China Sea, conflicting with smaller claims by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Even though all of those nations except Brunei maintain military fortifications on the Spratly Islands, smaller neighbors can’t help but feel a little uneasy when they observe China’s interactions with Japan.

It’s not entirely clear which of the Spratly Islands and reefs are claimed by China. While Beijing says that it holds authority over “adjacent waters,” Chinese officials have never explicitly stated which landmasses they consider to be under Chinese jurisdiction. Instead, the Chinese government opted to reclaim nearly 3,000 acres of land in the region, even constructing an airstrip in the contested waters.

“We all know that turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter declared last spring.

But Beijing continues to frame the current situation in the South China Sea in precisely those terms, as a matter of sovereignty, especially when speaking to its domestic audience. The language used in state media reports isn’t entirely consistent with statements released by its governmental organs. Instead of bringing up matters of maritime rights and security, Chinese citizens are briefed on how external forces are challenging the Chinese government’s dominance of the South China Sea.

It’s hard to overstate the classic strategic importance of these waterways. The South China Sea is a key trade route for all nations, especially those in East and Southeast Asia. A third of worldwide maritime traffic passes through, including over half of the world’s merchant fleets.

Securing the trade routes of the South China Sea ensures that China’s enormous thirst for energy can be sated. About 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports pass through the South China Sea.

China’s claim for its sovereignty is, unsurprisingly, the loudest. The body of water is folded into what Beijing calls the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, one of the big ideas pushed forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping to create a China-centric infrastructure network to further expand its influence in Eurasia. Officially, OBOR is about Eurasian connectivity and cooperation, but the artillery’s placement, and actions like preventing Vietnamese rescuers from reaching a fishing boat in distress, send an entirely different message.

During President Xi Jinping’s September visit to the U.S., he pledged that China would not “militarize” the artificial islands that have been built in the South China Sea. So armed conflict in the South China Sea, at the moment, seems unlikely. The geopolitical frictions have manifested themselves as low-level, harmless defiance, like Vietnamese boats ignoring a Chinese ban on fishing. Yet the militarization continues, driven in part by Beijing’s swagger in the South China Sea. Vietnam bought six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, four of which are now in service.

It’s no wonder that Hanoi is tightening military ties with the United States.

On Tuesday, when the American destroyer USS Lassen entered the contested waters of the South China Sea and sailed near one of China’s manufactured atolls (appropriately named Mischief Island in English), China’s Foreign Ministry immediately called it an illegal act, and its Ministry of Defense said the pass-through “endangered the lives of reef personnel,” was “harmful to the region’s peace and stability,” and was a “serious threat to China’s national security.”

At least one American official called the Lassen's cruise “routine” and “in accordance with international law.” At the moment, there is no indication whether a repeat of the Lassen's action will take place.

The horizon off “China Beach” continues to darken.