C3S Paper No. 0176/2015
Courtesy: LIMES: Rivista Italiana Di Geopolitica, no. 8, September 2015
This article examines how the South China Sea dispute between Vietnam and China has resulted in the unprecedented modernization of Vietnam’s naval and air forces. This development is placed within the historical development of Sino-Vietnamese relations from enmity during the Cambodian conflict to amity. Although the South China Sea territorial dispute is the major irritant in bilateral relations, it has not prevented the two countries from developing what they term a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” Vietnam strives to maintain its autonomy through a policy of political and economic cooperation with China in areas where their national interests converge, and by struggle against assertive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.
The Political-Strategic Context
Two years after Vietnam was reunified it became embroiled in a border conflict with neighboring Cambodia. In December 1978 Vietnam took the fateful decision to invade its neighbor and overthrow the Khmer Rouge, a regime that was allied with China. China retaliated by invading northern Vietnam in 1979 in order “to teach Vietnam a lesson” for defying China. The United States, Japan and the European Union imposed economic and trade sanctions on Vietnam.
For the next decade, while Vietnamese military forces were stabilizing the situation in Cambodia, China kept the northern border tense by repeated shelling and threats to launch another punitive attack. Vietnam deployed up to 250,000 troops to its northern provinces to guard against a second Chinese invasion. During this period the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) designated China as “the dangerous and most direct enemy of the Vietnamese people.”
By 1987, as a result of a thaw in relations between China and the Soviet Union the prospects for securing a political settlement in Cambodia became a reality and the situation along the China-Vietnam border gradually stabilized. In September 1989 Vietnam completed the withdrawal of all its military forces from Cambodia and tensions with China subsided.
In September 1990 high-level Chinese and Vietnamese officials held a summit in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu and mapped out the path to normalization. In June 1991, in anticipation of improved relations with China, the VCP’s Seventh National Congress adopted policy guidance that called for Vietnam to “diversify and multilateralize economic relations with all countries and economic organizations . . . regardless of different socio-political systems.”
In October 1991 a comprehensive political settlement of the Cambodian conflict was reached by an international conference convened in Paris. Vietnam met two of China’s major demands: the withdrawal of all Vietnamese military forces from Cambodia and a political settlement that included China’s ally, Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge).
The following month the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China normalized diplomatic relations after a thirteen-year period of estrangement. Over the next four years Vietnam achieved notable success in meeting the objectives set by its Seventh National Congress, by 1995 Vietnam normalized relations with the United States, and Japan and European Union dropped their economic sanctions and resumed development assistance. Vietnam also became the seventh member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Vietnam-China Strategic Partnership
In March 1999 a summit meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese party leaders adopted a sixteen-character motto calling for “long-term, stable, future-oriented, goodneighborly and all-round cooperative relations.” A joint statement issued the following year established the framework for long-term state-to-state relations. China and Vietnam quickly reached an agreement demarcating their land border and delimiting the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin, where a joint fishery area was established.
At the Ninth Party Congress in 2001 new policy guidance stated that Vietnam would give priority to developing relations with “socialist, neighboring and traditional friendly states,” referring to China, Laos and Cambodia, and Russia, respectively. In July the following year, the VCP Central Committee issued Resolution No. 3 “On National Security Strategy.” This resolution declared that China was among Vietnam’s friends while the United States was classified as Vietnam’s strategic enemy. The Ninth Congress also declared that, “Vietnam wants to be a friend and a reliable partner to all nations.” How was this declaration to be squared with Vietnam’s ideological prescriptions in favor of socialist states and the new hierarchy in external relations? In July 2003 the VCP Central Committee issued Resolution No. 8, “Strategy of National Defense in the New Situation,” to resolve this conundrum. Resolution No. 8 privileged pragmatic national interests over outdated ideology. Vietnam would cooperate with states where national interests converged; but Vietnam would struggle against states that harmed Vietnam’s national interests. Resolution No. 8 introduced the dialectic concepts of “objects of cooperation” (Đối tác) and “objects of struggle” (Đối tượng) to justify this new orientation.
Vietnam’s relations with China should be put in the framework of Vietnam’s open-door policy of diversifying and multilateralizing its external relations. Since 2001, Vietnam has pursued a grand strategy of developing close relations with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council; the major powers in Northeast Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia; and Europe through formal strategic partnership agreements. Vietnam negotiated its first strategic partnership agreement with the Russian Federation in 2001. It then reached strategic partnership agreements with Japan (2006), India (2007), China (2008), South Korea and Spain (2009), United Kingdom (2010), Germany (2011), and France, Italy, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore (2013).
In 2006, Vietnam and China set up a Joint Steering Committee on Bilateral Cooperation at deputy prime ministerial level to coordinate all aspects of their bilateral relations. In June 2008, Vietnam and China upgraded their bilateral relations to a strategic partnership following the summit of party leaders in Beijing. Bilateral relations were further upgraded to a strategic cooperative partnership the next year. Under this framework, China and Vietnam developed a dense network of party, state, defense and multilateral mechanisms to manage their bilateral relations. Vietnam and China currently characterize their bilateral relations as a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.
The South China Sea Dispute
Prior to the normalization of relations between China and Vietnam in 1991, the South China Sea featured prominently on two occasions. First, in January 1974, a Chinese naval flotilla invaded the Paracel Islands and expelled the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam. At this time Vietnam was still divided between North and South. Second, in March 1988, while Vietnam was still engaged in Cambodia, a Chinese naval force attacked Vietnamese military engineers on features in the South China Sea and took possession of Fiery Cross and Johnson South reefs.
In 1992, shortly after Vietnam and China normalized their diplomatic relations, the two sides became embroiled in a confrontation over oil prospecting rights in the waters around Vietnam’s Tu Chinh reef located off its southeastern coast. Later in the 1990s another spat erupted when China awarded oil-prospecting rights to Crestone Oil, an American company, in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Friction between China and Vietnam over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea erupted in 2007 when China imposed a unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea above twelve degrees north latitude. China enforced this ban by boarding Vietnamese boats and seizing their catch and communications gear. In some instances Chinese vessels rammed Vietnamese boats. Several sunk and there were fatalities. Later China arrested Vietnamese fishermen and held them until payment of large fines. Also in 2007, China began to exert pressure on foreign oil companies to cease their operations in Vietnamese waters or face difficulties in their China-based operations.
A major turning point in the South Chins Sea dispute came when the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf set a May 2009 deadline for the submission of claims for extended continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles. China, for the first time, officially submitted a map containing nine-dash lines around the South China Sea and claimed sovereignty over all the features within this line including adjacent waters.
China’s nine-dash line cut deeply into the EEZs of littoral states, including Vietnam. This overlapping area soon became a zone of contention as Chinese maritime law enforcement ships attempted to enforce sovereignty. For example, Chinese civilian ships began to interfere with the commercial operations of oil-exploration vessels operating in Vietnam’s EEZ. There were several public incidents where Chinese ships either interfered with or cut the cables of foreign vessels conducting seismic surveys in Vietnam’s EEZ. In 2012 when Vietnam’s National Assembly adopted the Law of the Sea of Vietnam setting out its maritime boundaries, China’s National Offshore Oil Company responded by putting exploration blocs that overlapped with Vietnam’s EEZ out to international tender.
Recurrent friction over territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China have continued up to the present. No incident was more serious than China’s placement of a mega oil-drilling platform, the Hai Yang Shi You 981, in disputed waters in May-July 2014. The HYSY 981 was accompanied by a mixed Chinese flotilla comprising more than eighty naval warships, Coast Guard ships, tug boats and fishing craft. This number grew to more than one hundred at the height of the crisis. Chinese military aircraft flew overhead.
Vietnam responded by sending out Coast Guard and Fisheries Surveillance Force vessels to protest China’s breach of its sovereign jurisdiction. This resulted in daily confrontations involving deliberate ramming by both sides and the use of high-pressure fire hoses by Chinese ships directed at the bridges and communications masts of Vietnamese vessels. Vietnam claimed it made over thirty diplomatic representations to China, including attempts to activate hot lines, during May to no avail. This crisis marked the most serious deterioration in bilateral relations since the Sino Vietnamese border of 1979.
The confrontation over the deployment of HYSY 981 ended as abruptly as it began. China announced that the drilling platform completed its operations and withdrew it from the area. China then received a special envoy representing the Secretary General of the VCP and a delegation of thirteen senior Vietnamese generals including the Minister of National Defense. Both sides agreed to reset bilateral relations back to where they were before the HYSY 981 crisis. They also agreed that South China Sea disputes should not harm their overall bilateral relations. Nevertheless the crisis of May- July 2014 severely eroded strategic trust between the two comprehensive strategic cooperative partners.
Vietnam’s Force Modernization
The above events related to the South China Sea form the backdrop to Vietnam’s decision to modernize its naval and air forces for operations in the South China Sea in order to safeguard Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Up until the mid- 1990s Vietnam’s navy was primarily a coastal one. From the mid-1990s Vietnam began purchasing Tarantul-class frigates from the Soviet Union armed with anti-ship missiles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation became Vietnam’s main arms supplier. Since 2008, the Vietnamese navy has taken delivery of one BPS-500 corvette, two Gepard 3.9-class guided missile stealth frigates (armed with 3M24 Uran anti-ship missiles), three Varshavyanka or advanced Kilo-class conventional submarines (armed with anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles), four Tarantul V guided missile corvettes, five Petya-class light frigates, and six Svetlyak-class Fast Attack Craft (armed with anti-ship missiles). Vietnam is expected to receive two additional Gepard frigates this year and take delivery of three additional Kilo-class submarines before the end of 2016.
Reportedly Vietnam has contracted to purchase at least two Dutch Sigma-class corvettes (to be armed with new extended range Exocet anti-ship missiles).
In addition, Vietnam also acquired eleven Su-27 and twenty-three Su-30 multirole jet aircraft. In 2013 Vietnam announced it was conducting air patrols over the South China Sea.
Robert Farley, a security specialist at the University of Kentucky, offers the provocative assessment that there are five Vietnamese weapons that China should fear: the Sukhoi fighter, the Kilo-class submarine, the P-800 Onyx cruise missile, the S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM), and Vietnam’s territory itself. The P-800 Onyx cruise missile “can be launched from aircraft, surface ships, submarines, and shore based platforms” and attack Chinese ships from multiple, unexpected vectors and overwhelm the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) air defense systems.
The S-300 SAM is one of the world’s most sophisticated and integrated air defense systems. According to Farley, “it can track and engage dozens of targets at ranges of up to seventy-five miles… Used in conjunction with the fighters of the VPAF (Vietnam People’s Army Air Force), the SAM network would make it very difficult to carry out a concerted air campaign against Vietnam at acceptable cost.” The S-300 system could be used to protect Cam Ranh Bay and other vital Vietnamese naval bases. And finally, Farley notes, Vietnam “has the advantage of space,” that is, “inhospitable terrain” that would deter China from launching a land invasion.
Gary Li, a maritime security specialist with IHS Maritime in Beijing, also stresses the importance of Vietnam’s geographical location with respect to the South China Sea. Vietnam possesses the largest and most numerous numbers of islands in the Spratly archipelago. China “has to travel vast distances to reach the ends of its claimant zone,” while “Vietnam, on the other hand, is contesting an area that is right on its doorstep. Its fleet of missile-armed light corvettes and submarines can strike and retreat into their homeports at will, while a stricken Chinese fleet would more or less be lost.”
Li concludes that when Vietnam’s naval and air forces are integrated with coastal artillery and missiles forces deployed along its extended coastline, Vietnam’s maritime approaches have been converted into something of a ”shooting gallery.” It should be noted that Vietnam is currently lobbying Russia and India to acquire the BrahMos cruise land attack cruise missile.
Brian Benedictus, an East Asian political-military analyst based in Washington, argues that Vietnam’s acquisition of Gepard-class frigates, Molniya (Tarantul)-class corvettes and enhanced Kilo (Varshavyanka)-class submarines, “potentially allows [Vietnam] more options in its power projection towards claims in the South China Sea.” According to Benedictus, Vietnam’s frigates and corvettes “all have the ability to be quick strike vessels in a conflict scenario near the South China Sea, and potentially deliver devastating blows to enemy vessels, something Beijing must take into account before a decision would be made to engage the Vietnamese navy.”
Vietnam’s Conventional Submarine Fleet
What new capabilities do Vietnam’s new fleet of conventional submarines add to its strategic capabilities?
Hanoi-based diplomatic observers reported last year that Vietnam’s Kilo-class submarines were undertaking patrols along its coast. In addition, Vietnamese crews are currently undergoing training in undersea warfare doctrine and tactics at India’s INS Satavahana submarine center. These developments have led foreign defense and security analysts to consider how quickly Vietnam can absorb its new weaponry and create a credible naval force that can operate in the South China Sea.
Collin Koh, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, argues that Vietnam will use its submarines in area denial operations off its coast and in the Spratly islands once they become fully operational. According to Koh, “Sea denial means creating a psychological deterrent by making sure a stronger naval rival never really knows where your subs might be. It is classic asymmetric warfare utilized by the weak against the strong and something I think the Vietnamese understand very well.
The question is whether they can perfect it in the underwater dimension.” According to Benedictus, “Vietnam is in close proximity to China’s Hainan Province, the island which is harbor to the PLAN Southern Pacific Fleet. It is worrisome enough for Beijing to consider that harbored vessels could be easy prey to submarines off the island’s shores, if conflict took place; the prospect of Vietnam someday having landattack capabilities integrated into its submarine fleet would be a serious cause of concern.” Benedictus concludes that Vietnam’s Varshavyanka-class submarines “have the potential to disrupt enemy ships in a military conflict in a variety of ways,” particularly as the PLAN is weak in anti-submarine warfare.
According to Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, who has consulted Chinese assessments of Vietnam’s military, observes that Chinese defense planners monitor Vietnam’s modernization programs “extremely closely” and have “ample respect… for Vietnam overall,” including the Vietnamese Air Force.
According to Goldstein Vietnam’s Varshavyanka-class submarines can “deliver lethal blows with either torpedoes or anti-ship cruise missiles.” Nonetheless, Goldstein reports that Chinese analysts have identified two major weaknesses in Vietnam’s military strategy: lack of major experience in operating complex weapons systems and “surveillance, targeting and battle management.” These weaknesses have led Chinese defense officials to believe “that China could prevail in any armed clash” with Vietnam. Goldstein concludes, “Vietnam’s most promising strategy versus China is the hope that it might have sufficient forces for deterrence, while simultaneously pursuing diplomacy to resolve disputes.”
Siemon Wezeman, at analyst based at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, argues that from the Chinese point of view Vietnam’s deterrence is already a reality. According to Wezeman, “The Vietnamese have changed the whole scenario – they already have two submarines, they have the crews and they appear to have the weapons and their capabilities and experience will be growing from this point. From the point of view of Chinese assumptions, the Vietnamese deterrent is already at a point where it must be very real.”
When all of Vietnam’s current and future arms acquisitions are taken into account, it is evident that Vietnam has taken major steps to develop a robust capacity to resist maritime intervention by a hostile power. This has taken the form of developing a counter-intervention strategy that integrates shore-based artillery and missile systems; Su-30 Sukhoi multirole jet fighters; fast attack craft, corvettes and frigates armed with ship-to-ship missiles; and Varshavyanka-class submarines. These weapon systems should enable Vietnam to make it extremely costly for China to conduct maritime operations within a 200-300 nautical mile band of water along Vietnam’s coast from the Vietnam-China border in the northeast to around Da Nang in central Vietnam if not further south. Additionally, Vietnam also has the capacity to strike China’s major naval base near Sanya on Hainan Island and military facilities on Woody Island from its shorebased Bastion cruise missile system or from land attack cruise missiles on it Kilo-class submarines.
As Farley correctly concludes:, “Vietnam does not want a full-scale war with China… In particular Vietnam doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with China in a capital and technology intensive war that might attrite away the expensive equipment the VPA has acquired. Nevertheless, China must appreciate that Vietnam has bite. The Vietnamese military, in its current configuration, is designed to deter Chinese adventurism.” In sum, Vietnam’s defense strategy is not designed to confront China in a sustained conflict. Rather it is aimed at deterring China at the lower end of the conflict spectrum by posing risks to PLAN warships should they contemplate intervening to support civilian law enforcement vessels or attempt to seize one of the features occupied by Vietnam in the South China Sea.
Vietnam force modernization provides Vietnam with the means to “struggle against” China when China threatens Vietnam’s national interests. Otherwise, Vietnam’s main strategy is to “cooperate with” China in the many areas that comprise their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.
(Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor of Politics, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.)