Following weeks of scaremongering by American officials over China’s activities in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State John Kerry used his visit to Beijing last weekend to issue an ultimatum to Chinese leaders to halt land reclamation on islets and shoals. His Chinese counterpart Wang Yi bluntly refused, insisting that China would safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity “as firm as a rock.”
Washington is not going to take no for an answer. In what is already an explosive situation, the question has to be asked: Is the US preparing a “Gulf of Tonkin” incident as the pretext for direct military action against Chinese facilities and armed forces in the South China Sea? Such reckless brinkmanship would risk war between two nuclear armed powers.
The historic parallels are chilling. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson needed a justification for decisions that had already been made to dramatically escalate US military involvement in a civil war in Vietnam and to begin bombing targets in North Vietnam. Pentagon planners had concluded that Washington’s widely reviled puppet regime in Saigon was incapable of defeating the North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front on its own.
Preparations for massively expanding US involvement were drawn up well in advance. In the summer of 1964, the US worked with the South Vietnamese to stage a series of provocations—probes by US-supplied patrol boats to expose North Vietnamese radar systems. On August 2, the USS Maddox was monitoring one of these raids in the Gulf of Tonkin, part of the South China Sea, eight miles offshore and well within the North Vietnam’s 12-mile territorial waters, that provoked an exchange of fire with small North Vietnamese boats.