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A Chinese vessel off the coast of the Spratly Islands

With attention focused on North Korea’s brinkmanship on nuclear weapons and missiles, another potential crisis is brewing that is about ready to spill over into violence, with Vietnam apparently preparing to challenge China’s ownership of a string of islands thought to be the link to billions of dollars worth of oil.

In asserting its rights to the Spratly Islands also claimed by China, Vietnam has ordered six Project 636 Kilo-class submarines from Russia and has gotten permission for the purchase, in addition to other military arms Vietnam has ordered.

Russia sees the sales as strategically beneficial and Chinese critics suggest Russia is trying to gain “strategic benefit by stepping up arms sales to Southeast Asian countries. Its arms sales to Vietnam possibly have special significance for Russia, because returning to Cam Ranh Bay has been a goal long cherished by Russia.”

Given China’s protective view that East Asia is in its sphere of influence, any new introduction of a Russian military presence, including military assistance to an old adversary, can only exacerbate their relationship.

For some time, Vietnam has laid claim and occupies some 30 of the Spratly Islands which China also claims. The Spratlys aren’t just a group of reefs, islets and islands in the South China Sea located between the Philippines and Vietnam. They also are the site of potentially significant oil and gas reserves and offer rich fishing grounds. Chinese surveys estimate that the Spratly area holds some 17.7 billion tons of oil and natural gas reserves compared to Kuwait’s estimated 13 billion tons.

In addition to China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also have staked claims on some of the islands. However, the issue of claims centers more on Vietnam and China. Indeed, the earliest activity of migration patterns originates out of present-day China and Vietnam, going back to 600 B.C. Even up until the 18th century, neither country was aware that the other had charted the islands and made claims to them. Yet, both countries have a history in which the Spratlys figure prominently.

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In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed over a portion of the Spratlys. Chinese gunboats sank Vietnamese armed transport ships attempting to land troops. In 1979, there was a bloody clash between the two countries that killed tens of thousands. After the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam in 1975 and the North and South consolidated, Vietnam then developed closer ties with the Soviet Union.

Vietnam, no traditional friend of China, then pursued its recent $1.8 billion deal with Russia to buy six Kilo-class submarines, suggesting a more assertive stance to its South China Sea claims in the future.

According to analysts, Vietnam occupies more than 20 bases in the Spratly group of islands, even more than China or any other claimant to the island group. Not only do the islands have a seabed with potentially large oil and gas reserves, they straddle vital shipping lanes. China has oil fields in the north while Vietnam is developing fields in the south of the island group.

At present, Vietnam has two Yugo-class midget submarines transferred from North Korea in 1997. For years, Vietnam has been trying to obtain the Kilo submarine to enlarge its fleet, since this particular class of Russian sub is considered to be one of the stealthiest. In fact, defense experts said that the Kilos have an ability to avoid detection and are designed for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare.

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F. Michael Maloof, a frequent G2B contributor, is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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