GIGA Focus International Edition English ,

Rising Sino-Vietnamese Tensions in the South China Sea

GIGA Focus | International Edition English | Number 08 |

In May 2014 China started to drill for oil near the Paracel Islands, an area claimed by both Vietnam and China as territorial waters, which led to considerable diplomatic tensions and violent actions against Chinese enterprises in Vietnam.

Analysis China’s recent activity reveals an increasing assertiveness, which has raised concerns about possible military actions in the South China Sea. One could argue that China’s latest undertaking is proof of its increasingly threatening behavior, thereby confirming the "China threat" thesis. However, when analyzing the context of the South China Sea disputes in recent years, the aforementioned events are consistent with an increasingly assertive behavior demonstrated by several claimant states. China’s conduct in the South China Sea is determined by local conflict dynamics and should therefore not dictate Chinese foreign policy in other areas.

  • At first glance, China’s behavior could be interpreted as symptomatic of a Country that is attempting to change the world order. This could provide the United States and Japan, who are increasingly distrustful of China, with justification for further containing China and embarking on a more confrontational course with the Chinese government.

  • Politics in the South China Sea, where the territorial claims of several states overlap, are marked by a high degree of legal ambiguity, symbolic actions and Nationalist resentment. Any provocative action should be interpreted within this conflict context.

  • Although China’s behavior in the South China Sea has indeed become increasingly assertive, so has that of several other claimant states – among them the Philippines and Vietnam. Therefore, China’s drilling activities should not be taken as evidence of a growing boldness in other policy areas but rather as part of China’s strategy in the South China Sea.

  • The perception of an increasingly assertive China does not stand up to an examination of its actual behavior in international politics. However, acting according to this perception in the longer run could create mistrust and frustration on the Chinese side and turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Related Research at the GIGA

GIGA Focus Tabs

Suggested Citation Style

Dicke, Vera, und Heike Holbig (2014), Rising Sino-Vietnamese Tensions in the South China Sea, GIGA Focus International Edition English, 08, October, urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-405527


Creative Commons

Open Access

The GIGA Focus is an Open Access publication and can be read on the Internet and downloaded free of charge at According to the conditions of the Creative-Commons license Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 this publication may be freely duplicated, circulated and made accessible to the public. The particular conditions include the correct indication of the initial publication as GIGA Focus and no changes in or abbreviation of texts.

The German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) – Leibniz-Institut für Globale und Regionale Studien in Hamburg publishes the Focus series on Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and global issues. The GIGA Focus is edited and published by the GIGA. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute. Authors alone are responsible for the content of their articles. GIGA and the authors cannot be held liable for any errors and omissions, or for any consequences arising from the use of the information provided.

General Editor GIGA Focus Series: Prof. Dr. Sabine Kurtenbach

Prof. Dr. Heike Holbig

Senior Research Fellow
Editor GIGA Focus Asia

Prof. Dr. Heike Holbig is a senior research fellow at the GIGA Institute for Asian Studies, and Professor of Political Science with a focus on Chinese and East Asian Area Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt. As a member of the GIGA’s Research Programme 1 “Accountability and Participation,” she focuses on state–society relations as well as ideological and organisational changes in the authoritarian party regime of the People’s Republic of China. Also, she is currently doing research on China’s role in multilateral organisations in the context of GIGA’s Research Programme 4 “Power and Ideas.”

Recent Publications by the Authors

Heike Holbig

Xi Jinping and the Art of Chrono-Ideological Engineering

in: Barbara Mittler / Natascha Gentz (eds.), China and the World - the World and China: Transcultural Perspectives on Modern China, Volume 3, Gossenberg: Ostasien Verlag, 2019, 183-200

Bertram Lang / Heike Holbig

Civil Society Work in China: Trade-Offs and Opportunities for European NGOs

GIGA Focus Asia, 06/2018

Iwo Amelung / Moritz Bälz / Heike Holbig / Elisa Hörhager / Matthias Schumann / Cornelia Storz


in: Iwo Amelung / Moritz Bälz / Heike Holbig / Matthias Schumann / Cornelia Storz (eds.), Protecting the Weak in East Asia: Framing, Mobilisation, and Institutionalisation, Abingdon / New York: Routledge, 2018, 1-19

Iwo Amelung / Moritz Bälz / Heike Holbig / Matthias Schumann / Cornelia Storz (eds.)

Protecting the Weak in East Asia: Framing, Mobilisation, and Institutionalisation

Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2018