By Zachary Abuza
Though often described as “battle-tested,” the Vietnam People’s Army’s last combat was in 1989 in Cambodia. Since the mid-1990s, Vietnam has developed maritime and air capabilities in order to defend its maritime domain; Vietnamese military expenditures climbed from $1.4 billion in 2003 to $3.4 billion in 2012. By Southeast Asian standards, Vietnam’s military modernization is impressive; no other country in the region has brought as much capability online as quickly as Vietnam. But it will take years for Vietnam to complete its current round of modernization, as well as develop new doctrines and tactics to use this new technology.
The core of the Vietnamese naval fleet today consists of 11 Soviet-era corvettes and 5 frigates. None are new, nor recently upgraded in weaponry and capabilities in command, control, communications, and intelligence (3CI). Vietnam recently deployed two Gephard class frigates from Russia, and two to four more will be added in the coming years. Vietnam also bought two missile-armed fast attack craft from Russia, and licensed four more for domestic construction; more are coming online. It has also purchased six frigates from India, while four Sigma class corvettes are on order from the Netherlands.
While there has been much fanfare about Vietnam’s acquisition of Russian-built Kilo class diesel submarines, only two of the six ordered have been delivered. The third is due at the end of this year. Two more will be delivered in 2015 and the last in 2016. The $2 billion agreement will give Vietnam the largest and most modern submarine fleet in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam’s small air force is in a similar position. It currently has a dozen SU-27s and 42 SU-30s, with 12 more on order; all are configured for anti-ship and maritime operations. Hanoi is also considering buying either MIG-44s or SU-34s. Vietnam is lobbying the U.S. government to lift its lethal weapons ban in order to purchase an unspecified number of Lockheed P-3 Orion ASW planes. (Washington has said it will not lift the ban on weapons sales unless the human rights conditions in Vietnam improve). In many ways, Vietnam’s most robust deterrent right now is its missile force, which includes 40 Yakhont shore-to-ship cruise missiles. Hanoi has negotiated licenses for domestic production of three classes of ship-to-ship missiles. Also in the arsenal are French-built Exocets and Russian-built Sizzlers deployed on the Kilo class submarines.
Nonetheless, the quantitative and qualitative differences with China’s People’s Liberation Army have been growing exponentially. Vietnamese leaders are deeply concerned with how little it can do to deter Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Hence, Vietnam’s best weapons remain diplomacy and international law.
At the recent ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting in Myanmar, Vietnamese minister of defense Phung Quang Thanh reiterated Vietnam’s position of seeking a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the standoff over China’s oil rig placed some 130 miles from the Vietnamese coast. “We have not used aircraft, ships armed with missile batteries or frogmen to attack and destroy the Chinese rig. We’ve only used Coast Guard, Fisheries Resources Surveillance and fishing boats to protect our sovereignty,” Thanh said. The following day in Manila, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung suggested Vietnam may follow the Philippine lead and submit a claim to the arbitration panel under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Some ideas of what Vietnam should do include:
It should file a legal brief, parallel to that of the Philippines, at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Vietnam has a strong claim to its continental shelf while China’s nine-dash line is legally suspect. Even China’s ministry of foreign affairs is backing off from that position. A non-confrontational approach is key to winning diplomatic support both within ASEAN and from outside players such as the United States and Japan.
Second, it should increase its investments in maritime policing. The deployment of white-hulled Chinese maritime surveillance ships caught the Vietnamese off guard and did much to break up the ASEAN consensus that was developing in 2009. Both the United States and Japan have indicated a willingness to support this effort.
Third, Vietnam should step up bilateral and multilateral defense cooperation, in particular with India, Japan, Australia as well as its ASEAN partners. Bolstering its defense cooperation with the United States should be a top priority.
Vietnam will not become an ally of the United States – that would be a red line for China – but the two countries are stepping up military relations. Increased port access, more joint exercises and intelligence sharing are all identified in the 2011 defense agreement with the United States.
The costs of military action have never been higher, and Vietnam is in no position to engage in sustained military operations against China. Yet Vietnam will likely respond if attacked first. That makes other tools of statecraft, diplomacy and international law, more salient.
Dr. Zachary Abuza is a Professor of Political Science at Simmons College Boston, and writes on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.