Vietnam’s military buildup to face China!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Heavy militarization and upgrade of military equipment at the cost of welfare schemes of common people and poor have been the hall mark of international politics today when every nation, big and small, waste huge resources on military buildups, citing the usual fake threat perceptions.
Vietnam’s military is steeling itself for conflict with China as it accelerates a decade-long modernization drive, Hanoi’s biggest arms buildup since the height of the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s strategy has moved beyond contingency planning. The ruling Vietnamese Communist Party’s goal is to deter its giant northern neighbour as tensions rise over the disputed South China Sea, and if that fails, to be able to defend itself on all fronts. Key units have been placed on “high combat readiness” – an alert posture to fend off a sudden attack – including its elite Division 308, which guards the mountainous north.
China and Vietnam fought a bloody border war in 1979. The likely flashpoint this time is in the South China Sea, where they have rival claims in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. “We don’t want to have a conflict with China and we must put faith in our policy of diplomacy,” one senior Vietnamese government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. “But we know we must be ready for the worst.”
It has also recently upgraded and expanded air defenses, including obtaining early warning surveillance radars from Israel and advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries from Russia. Indeed, increases in Vietnam’s military spending have outstripped its South East Asian neighbours over the last decade, according to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “They are not doing this for national day parades … they are building real military capabilities,” said Tim Huxley, a regional security expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore.
Most significantly, Vietnam is creating a naval deterrent largely from scratch with the purchase of six advanced Kilo-class submarines from Russia. In recent months, the first of those submarines have started patrolling the South China Sea, Vietnamese and foreign military officials said, the first confirmation the vessels have been in the strategic waterway.
Vietnam is seeking more Russian jet fighter-bombers and is in talks with European and US arms manufacturers to buy fighter and maritime patrol planes and unarmed surveillance drones. While ramping up combat readiness, Hanoi’s once-reclusive generals are reaching out to a broad range of strategic partners. The outreach covers weapons purchases, ship visits and intelligence sharing but will have its limits. Hanoi shuns formal military alliances under a staunchly independent foreign policy.
Russia sells arms to both China and Vietnam. Russia and India are the main source of advanced weapons, training and intelligence cooperation. Hanoi is also building ties with the USA and its Japanese, Australian and Filipino allies, as well as Europe and Israel.
Tensions apart, both the neighbors continue with their trade. After both sides resumed trade links in 1991, growth in annual bilateral trade increased from only US$32 million in 1991 to almost USD $7.2 billion in 2004. By 2011, the trade volume had reached USD $25 billion. It is predicted that China will become Vietnam’s largest single trading partner, overtaking the United States, by 2030. China’s transformation into a major economic power in the 21st century has led to an increase of foreign investments in the bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties.
Vietnam’s exports to China include crude oil, coal, coffee and food, while China exports pharmaceuticals, machinery, petroleum, fertilizers and automobile parts to Vietnam. China has become Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner and the largest source of imports. Both nations are working to establish an “economic corridor” from China’s Yunnan province to Vietnam’s northern provinces and cities, and similar economic zones linking China’s Guangxi province with Vietnam’s Lạng Sơn and Quang Ninh provinces, and the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. Air and sea links as well as a railway line have been opened between the two countries, along with national-level seaports in the frontier provinces and regions of the two countries. Joint ventures have furthermore been launched, such as the Thai Nguyen Steel Complex, which produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of steel products
The relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have been turbulent, despite their common socialist background. Centuries of conquest by modern China’s imperial predecessor have given Vietnam an entrenched suspicion of Chinese attempts to dominate it. Though the PRC assisted North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, relations between the two nations soured following Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. China and Vietnam fought a prolonged border war from 1979 to 1990, but have since worked to improve their diplomatic and economic ties. However, the two countries remain in dispute over territorial issues in the South China Sea.
While communist parties rule both Vietnam and China and share political bonds, the two countries have a history marked by armed conflict and long periods of lingering mistrust. China’s historic claim to most of the South China Sea, expressed on maps as a nine-dash line, overlaps the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Taiwan also has claims in the area. Some $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the waterway every year, including most of the oil imported by China, Japan and South Korea.
Two decades of double-digit increases in defence budgets have given China a vastly larger and better equipped navy, air force and army. China took full control of another South China Sea island chain, the Paracels, after a naval showdown with then South Vietnam in 1974. Hanoi still protests China’s occupation. More recently, China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed waters for 10 weeks in the middle of last year sparked anti-Chinese riots across Vietnam. The rig’s placement on Vietnam’s continental shelf 80 nautical miles from its coast was a game-changer, hardening suspicions about Chinese President Xi Jinping among political and military leaders.
China’s military strategists have long been frustrated at the two dozen military outposts that Hanoi has fortified across the Spratlys since losing the Paracels in 1974, Chinese analysts say. China is building three air strips on man-made islands it is building on reefs in the Spratlys that it took from Vietnamese forces in 1988. Hanoi dispatched dozens of Vietnamese civilian vessels to confront the 70 coastguard and naval warships China sent to protect the oil rig in mid-2014. “It was a reminder to all of us just how dangerous the South China Sea has become,” said one retired US naval officer.
The importance to China of protecting its submarine base on Hainan Island – the projected home of its future nuclear armed submarine fleet – could be another flashpoint. Beijing also has jet fighters and many of its best warships stationed around Hainan Island. This South Sea Fleet is close to Vietnam’s northern coast and its vital deep water access channels to the South China Sea and beyond. China’s Defence Ministry said the two militaries had close, friendly relations and China was willing to work hard with Vietnam for regional peace. Both sides have frank exchanges of view on the South China Sea, both sides should look for a basic, lasting solution both sides can accept.
China’s historic claim to most of the South China Sea, expressed on maps as a nine-dash line, overlaps the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Taiwan also has claims in the area. Some $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the waterway every year, including most of the oil imported by China, Japan and South Korea.
In June 2011, Vietnam announced that its military would conduct new exercises in the South China Sea. China had previously voiced its disagreement over Vietnamese oil exploration in the area, stating that the Spratly Islands and the surrounding waters were its sovereign territory. Defense of the South China Sea was cited as one of the possible missions of the first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which entered service in September 2012.
In May 2013 Vietnam accused the PRC of hitting one of its fishing boats, while in May 2014 Vietnam accused China of ramming and sinking a fishing boat. In June 2014 China declared there would be no military conflict with Vietnam as the two were sparring over an oil rig in disputed territory in the South China Sea. China at the time had 71 ships in the disputed area while Vietnam had 61.
Militarily, the tensions are palpable northwest of Hanoi at the headquarters of Division 308, Vietnam’s most elite military unit, where senior army officers talk repeatedly about “high combat readiness”. The phrase is on billboards beneath images of missiles and portraits of Vietnam’s late revolutionary founder, Ho Chi Minh. Perched between Vietnam’s craggy northern mountains and the ancient rice paddies of the Red River Delta, 308 is Vietnam’s oldest division and still effectively guards the northern approaches to Hanoi.
Reflecting deep-set official sensibilities towards offending China, a senior officer Colonel Le Van Hai said Vietnam is ready to repel any foreign force. “Combat readiness is the top priority of the division, of the Ministry of Defence and the country. We can deal with any sudden or unexpected situation,” he said.
Diplomats said that the phrases also surface in talks with foreign military delegations. When Vietnam refers to the ‘new situation’, they are using coded language to refer to the rising likelihood of an armed confrontation or clash with China, particularly in the South China Sea.
Foreign military envoys say they struggle to gauge Vietnam’s actual capabilities and how well they are integrating complex new weapons. They are given little access beyond Hanoi’s gilded staterooms. Vietnamese military strategists talk of creating a “minimal credible deterrent” – raising the costs of any Chinese move against Vietnam, whether it is a naval confrontation or an attack across the 1,400-km (875-mile) northern land border.
If conflict did break out, Hanoi could target Chinese-flagged merchant container and oil ships in the South China Sea, said Thayer, who said he was told this by Vietnamese strategists. Of course, the aim would be not to defeat China’s superior forces but “to inflict sufficient damage and psychological uncertainty to cause Lloyd’s insurance rates to skyrocket and for foreign investors to panic”, Thayer said in a paper presented to a Singapore conference last month. Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Vietnamese generals make clear to foreign visitors they know their limitations. Academic research has revealed how the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 was more intense than is widely known, rumbling on into the mid-1980s. The two sides then clashed at sea in 1988 when China occupied its first holdings in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea – a defeat still acutely felt in Hanoi.
The China Vietnam Conflict seems to go a long way before any constructive measures are taken on both sides to end mutual suspicion and launch truly friendly relations. Although China does not seem to be in a mood for wars like situations with big powers and it avoids wars with smaller regional powers, China has capabilities to wage wars. Vietnam does not want war with China, either. .