Small little incidents can get out of hand. Often the incidence are a pretext, the stated rather than the actual cause. The United States for one regularly starts its wars on the basis of a pretext that is later seen to have been greatly overstated. But a freely delivered pretext can be useful to those who want to start a conflict.
Although not widely known, China has fought border wars with both India, and Vietnam in modern times: India a total of 3 times, with the latest being in 1987, and Vietnam once in 1979.
NEW DELHI — It was billed as a new assertiveness, when India’s usually meek Prime Minister Manmohan Singh supposedly looked his Chinese counterpart in the eye at a summit in Bali last weekend and defended his country’s “commercial” right to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea.
Coming just after India and Vietnam agreed to jointly explore two ocean blocks just off the fiercely contested Spratly Islands, Singh’s stance in Bali prompted a frosty response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
The Chinese Communist Party newspaper put it… bluntly in an editorial last month, , accusing India and Vietnam of “reckless attempts in confronting China” and warning that Indian society was unprepared for a “fierce conflict” with China on the issue.
Both countries fear encirclement. The Chinese fear encirclement by the Western Democracies and their allies, Russia and its allies (traditionally Vietnam), and India. And India fears being surrounded by China and its Pakistani allies.
You potentially have five nuclear armed countries in the area: The United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. I am presuming that France, Britain, and North Korea, all with interests in the area would not get involved. United States planned naval bases in Singapore, and Marine bases in Australia make it less certain that it will not find itself drawn into the conflict.
China has been updating (wisely to my mind) their nuclear weapons capabilities, and its extensive use of tunnel networks makes it very difficult that a first strike can be assured. Fortunatley they also have a No First Use (NFU) policy which hopefully would keep some of the other nervous trigger fingers off the red button.