The ongoing disputes about the South China Sea mostly originate from Vietnam. The biggest challenge of China's insistence on a peaceful solution can also be laid at Vietnam's door.
Depending on how the situation develops, China has to be ready for two plans: negotiating with Vietnam for a peaceful solution, or answering the provocation with political, economic or even military counterstrikes. We have to be clear about the possibility of the second option, so as to let Vietnam remain sober about the South China Sea issue.
Vietnam has been taking risky actions in the South China Sea for some time. It has occupied 29 Chinese islands. It has been gaining the most benefits from undersea natural gas and oil exploitation. It is also the most aggressive in dealing with China.
Vietnam is the major advocate of inviting the US into the South China Sea as a "balance." Its government is also consenting to a growing nationalistic sentiment among its people. Hanoi has been setting a bad example in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam has been trapped in an unrealistic belief that as long as the US balances out the South China Sea issue, it can openly challenge China's sovereignty, and walk away with huge gains.
In previous military conflicts between the two countries, China tried hard to show restraint. But that seems to have only made Vietnam more daring still. Vietnam's interpretation of China's peaceful policy appears to be that whatever Vietnam does, China will refrain from using force.
Since a limited military conflict with China over the South China Sea in 1988, Vietnam has been increasingly aggressive in grabbing islands as its own, ignoring China's traditional policy of "shelving disputes and developing jointly." It is pushing the limits of China's national interest and dignity.
China has to send a clear message that it will take whatever measures necessary to protect its interests in the South China Sea. If Vietnam continues to provoke China in this region, China will first deal with it with maritime police forces, and if necessary, strike back with naval forces.
China should clearly state that if it decides to fight back, it will also take back the islands previously occupied by Vietnam. If Vietnam wants to start a war, China has the confidence to destroy invading Vietnam battleships, despite possible objections from the international community.
The US may add some uncertainty in the South China Sea. China will handle this carefully, and is not likely to engage in a direct confrontation with the US.
China's rise has come at the cost of increasing strategic risks in the south. China will continue its dedication to peace and development, but it has to be ready to face confrontation and showdown. The provocation from Vietnam may become a touchstone.