05/22/2014 04:17 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

Vietnam vs. China: The Captain Who Went Down With His Ship

The young Vietnamese naval officer, Lt. Commander Nguy Van Tha, opened fire on the Chinese warships. Only the last engine on his corvette, the Nhat Tao, was working and he was unable to avoid devastating return fire. As three other Vietnamese ships escaped the Paracel Islands, his crew on the Nhat Tao was ordered to abandon ship. The captain, Nguy Van Tha, stayed aboard and his ship sank to the bottom of the South China Sea.

That was 40 years ago, on January 19, 1974, when Vietnam defended against Chinese encroachment in the Paracels, one of many vain efforts before and since.

Today, the captain's heroism lives on for many Vietnamese people such as the 74-year-old war veteran who told Agence France Presse in Hanoi: "We are ready to die to protect our nation."

He spoke in the wake of violent demonstrations against Chinese companies operating in Vietnam, with factories burned. China had placed a massive, billion-dollar oil rig near the Paracels but well within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, igniting the latest explosive confrontation in Asia, or, as the Wall Street Journal wrote: "Another week, another step in China's methodical conquest of the South China Sea."

Vietnam's fleet of ships surrounding the rig was met by a force of Chinese vessels using water cannons and ramming the Vietnamese. The result was a standoff, then a deadly response against the Chinese companies, a call for help from Vietnam's prime minister, and a shift by other Southeast Asian nations previously willing to ignore or accept China's expansionism.

The stationing of the giant rig by China, following President Barack Obama's trip to Asia is a challenge to the U.S. pivot to Asia, which strengthens allies Japan and the Philippines. Vietnam has no defense agreement with the U.S.

Yet, paradoxically, it is Vietnam, with a Communist government allied with China and dependent on Chinese trade, that historically has answered aggression from early history when Chinese warlords controlled much of Vietnam. The disputes have led to sea battles and border wars.

While Vietnam and the Philippines oppose the Chinese in the South China Sea and Japan firmly defends its Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the U.S. and much of the world still accept China's "peaceful rise."

There are signs of change, however. The State Department chastised China's "provocative" actions. When China's third-ranking military official, Gen. Fang Fenghui, visited Washington and said China will not "lose an inch," blaming the U.S. for stirring up problems, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey answered: "We will respond to threats."

China offers platitudes on peaceful relations, asking Southeast Asian neighbors to meet and discuss problems. China won't comply with its agreement with ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, not to seize lands, nor will it agree to arbitration in the World Court sought by the Philippines, saying in effect: "We are big and you are small, and you must meet with us alone."

China's president, Xi Jinping, addressing an international conference in Shanghai, described his policy succinctly: "One who tries to blow other's oil lamp will get beard on fire."

China has abandoned its "smile diplomacy" of only a few years ago and now presses its neighbors and occupies their lands. This puzzles the world. Domestic reasons are suspected, with China's Communist government trying to maintain control of a huge nation by diverting attention from problems and stirring nationalist sentiment.

Corruption remains endemic in the Chinese leadership, including its military. The soaring Chinese economy has slowed. Concerns grow about housing and construction bubbles, with empty buildings in cities. In the West, Uighur separatists use violence against the Chinese Han local governments. Villagers across China protest development on agricultural lands.

If China's intent is to alleviate domestic concerns by increased militancy and hegemony in the South China and East China Seas, it may be only a matter of time before a staged confrontation gets out of hand.

Off Vietnam, the circling fleets of Chinese vessels and Vietnamese warships are now more dangerous than the Philippines' diplomatic protests against Chinese seizure of islands and shoals.

China continues to provoke while blaming those who defend their lands. At some point, there will be response. The clean-shaven Vietnamese, for example, aren't worried about beards on fire.