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Vietnam’s National Defence Policy ; Megha Saravanan

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article 27/2022


Asia-Pacific has been the epicenter of dynamic development, and it now holds a crucial geoeconomic, geopolitical, and geostrategic position. On the global chessboard, the emergence of China has enhanced the significance of the South China Sea, Southeast Asia, and Vietnam. Vietnam serves as a crossroad between Southeast Asia and Asia. It also straddles important SLOCs (Sea Line of Communications) that connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans and serves as a trading hub for global and regional economies. The gateway to the sea for Laos and Cambodia is Vietnam and it is the best location for controlling the South China Sea. It has a lengthy history and is by far the most experienced in dealing with China of any Southeast Asian country. This maritime nation is among the most strategically valuable for regional powers, and its importance to the US has shifted from a historical footnote to a strategic player.

Vietnam’s first defense white paper was issued in 1998, and it has since produced four white papers. Traditionally, these documents have acted as non-offensive policy pronouncements on external threats to Vietnamese sovereignty and an assessment of how the Ministry of National Defense is dealing with them. It’s generally impossible to extract a clear message from these texts, which are wrapped in Marxist-Leninist ideological narrative and immersed in complexity, ambiguity, and coded rhetoric.[1] However, the most recent defense white paper, published in 2019, is more declarative in character. It recognizes that the global situation is progressively shifting towards multipolarity and that countries must ‘adapt their strategy to prioritize their national interests above all values’.[2]


In recent years, Beijing has repeatedly challenged Vietnamese economic activities within its claimed EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and continental shelf, resulting in the termination of some oil and gas exploration projects, such as the 2017 demand that the exploration operation with Repsol is halted and the 2019 standoff around the Vanguard Bank.[3] Hanoi is particularly wary of Beijing’s plans to use the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to achieve a “win-win” outcome both within Vietnam and in connections with key Vietnamese allies Cambodia and Laos, which could be part of a larger plan to encompass Vietnam. Its National Defense 2019 white paper was released in the midst of a big year for Vietnamese international affairs in 2020, with Hanoi holding both the ASEAN chairmanship and a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as navigating domestic transitions leading up to the National Party Congress in 2021. The participation in the ASEAN multilateral naval exercise, a Vietnam defense industry exhibition on the side-lines of the ADMM-Plus conference, and global events on the environment, post-war legacy issues, and peacekeeping were among the other engagements that played a role in Vietnam’s defense policy in 2020.[4]


The purpose of this paper is to make Vietnam’s defense policy public to the rest of the world, facilitating the promotion of international understanding and confidence. It is also an important text for raising national defense consciousness among the Vietnamese people and enabling all individuals, units, agencies, and community institutions to better grasp their rights and duties in the national construction and defense endeavor. It declares that Vietnam strives to ensure equal, friendly, and collaborative ties with other countries based on mutual respect for peace, security, national sovereignty, democracy, and socioeconomic development. It identifies problems and adjustments in defense policy, defense leadership and management mechanisms, national defense potential consolidation, and national defense policy and capability transparency. It explains the strategic backdrop and reinforces the national policy for homeland security. It contains parts of its strategic ideology, which is founded on the pillars of self-reliance and resilience,[5] as well as the national defense effort to peacefully resolve all problems.


Vietnam’s National Defense 2019 is divided into three sections: strategic context, a framework for defense policy, and the evolution of the Vietnam People’s Armed Forces,[6] with references to historical events, policy, strategies, ideology, and principles to the extent that they are publicizable. It also refers to aspects of Vietnam’s defense policy that have remained consistent over time, such as the emphasis on self-defense and the relations between the state, party, the armed forces, and the people, as well as changes, such as the shape of the country’s foreign engagements and certain policy proposals.[7]



Hanoi’s “three nos” defense policy of no alliances, no foreign bases on its territory, and no alignment with a second country against a third country was broadened by this white paper. It also includes a fourth “no,” which prohibits “the use or threat of force in international relations.” [8]At first impression, this appears to be a recital of an obvious international norm. When viewed in the backdrop of the 2019 Vanguard Bank standoff and the 2014 oil rig incident, it appears that Hanoi is aiming to indicate its desire to avoid a violent confrontation with China. Because the three ‘nos’ are essentially a way for Vietnam to limit its foreign actions in order to avoid offending China, this is a reasonable argument.

The paper further notes that “depending on the circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries.” [9]The addition of the italicized clause in the 2019 version indicates that there is now a causal link between the deterioration of Vietnam’s external security posture and the countries with which it decides to strengthen defense cooperation, even though it also emphasized the importance of establishing stronger defense ties with countries that support Vietnam’s national interests. Theoretically, “one-depend” formally and considerably broadens the range of strategic options by providing the military more leeway, particularly in dealing with Western militaries. Given the fundamentally cautious and indecisive nature of Vietnamese military circles, it’s uncertain how “one-depend” will be implemented in the end, albeit it’s an encouraging beginning. [10]If China’s coercive behavior in the South China Sea persists, Vietnam may ultimately elevate America’s status to “strategic partnership,” reflecting a shared long-term interest in countering China.


From the threat posed by China’s naval build-up and militarization of artificial islands to more directed provocations like frequent incursions into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, Vietnam is already at the forefront of challenges. Growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is causing greater frustration in Vietnam. However, the paper’s military history chapter is deafeningly silent on China. In line with previous white papers, Hanoi outlines wars against France and the United States, but significantly avoids any controversial mention of wars against China. It also ignores the 2019 standoff over international energy extraction near Vanguard Bank. [11]Vietnam, on the other hand, has loosened up greatly in terms of seeing China as a threat to the country in other contexts. The fact that Hanoi chose not to criticize China for past hostilities in its defense white paper implies that it doesn’t intend to go too far in its condemnation of Beijing — just enough to make a point.

The white paper expresses Hanoi’s assessment of crucial challenges and affirms Vietnam’s determination to peaceful cooperation with all states and willingness to develop defense ties, regardless of political or economic differences. It also reaffirms Hanoi’s red line – sovereignty – and the country’s long history of fending off foreign invasions. This sends a strong message to potential aggressors, reiterating Vietnam’s commitment to safeguarding its national sovereignty and economic maritime rights.[12] Indeed, the defense white paper cautions against allowing the South China Sea to become a “flashpoint” in great power competition. In real terms, that means Vietnam’s “four nos” policy remains sacrosanct.[13]

Despite taking a cautious stance toward its larger northern neighbor, the 2019 defense white paper is more critical of China than prior versions. The article mentions China eight times, with three of those mentions being negative references to Beijing’s disruptive activity in the South China Sea. Most notably, the white paper reads, “Divergences between Vietnam and China regarding sovereignty in the East Sea [South China Sea] are of historical existence, which needs to be settled with precaution, avoiding negative impacts.”[14] Nontraditional national security issues, like climate change, terrorism, cyber threats, maritime piracy, and environmental disasters are not new white paper subjects, but their prominence in this year’s edition is significant. These threats pose an “acute challenge to peace, security, stability, and cooperation for development in the region,” according to the 2009 white paper, but the 2019 version emphasizes the “acute challenge to peace, security, stability, and cooperation for development in the region” that these threats pose.[15]


There is a subtle hint of opportunities for the United States buried within the new defense white paper. Vietnam is likely signaling to China that it endorses the US Indo-Pacific Strategy by using the term “Indo-Pacific,” which was coined by the Trump administration. Others may claim that Hanoi is only referring to regional security institutions in the Indo-Pacific, like those led by the ASEAN, of which Vietnam is a member. In the white paper, however, ASEAN is discussed independently from the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, “Indo-Pacific” appears to have been used by a Vietnamese official only once before, during former President Tran Dai Quang’s March 2018 visit to India. As a result, any further mention of the Indo-Pacific seems crucial.[16]


Vietnam desires to broaden the extent of its international cooperation, pledging to collaborate in both territorial and maritime border protection, including joint patrols and conferences. The paper strongly supports the right of innocent passage in the South China Sea, as well as the secure and safe navigation and overflight. Decree 104, enacted in 2012, lays out the norms and conditions for a foreign military ship visiting Vietnam, allowing for one courtesy port call per year. [17]“Vietnam is willing to welcome vessels of navies, coast guards, border guards, and international organizations to make courtesy or ordinary port visits or stopover in its ports to repair, replenish logistic and technical supplies, or take refuge from natural disasters,” according to the 2019 paper. [18]

This indicates that Vietnam aims at increasing the number of courtesy port calls allowed under Decree 104 and to loosen the classification of ship visits. This is a clear rejection of measures aimed at restricting regional actors’ defense cooperation with external powers, which China has recommended should be included in ASEAN’s South China Sea code of conduct.[19] While Vietnam may adjust port call frequency to avoid irritating China, it might also express its independence by increasing the frequency of US ship visits to show discontent with Chinese coercion. Unlike earlier editions of the defense white paper, the latest one contains an annex addressing Vietnam’s involvement in ASEAN multilateral military operations. This new focus allows it to improve defense cooperation with international partners.


The defense budget is only mentioned briefly in the white paper, with a footnote stating that defense spending was 2.36 percent of GDP in 2018. [20]Vietnam is resolved to enhance its defense industry to satisfy national defense requirements, according to the paper, by investing selectively in several advanced defense industrial establishments. While the 2019 paper does not include in-depth updates on the defense force structure and organization, it does expand on the strategic framework and reinforces the national policy for homeland security. Being a self-described maritime nation, Vietnam puts a focus on the safety and protection of the oceans, pledging to uphold international law by adhering to freedom of navigation and overflight, open trade, and peaceful economic activity at sea. “Vietnam does not accept defense cooperation under pressure or any coercive conditions,” says a new section of the white paper.[21] This clearly rejects any disadvantageous alliance and defends national autonomy in determining defense relations and security interests—while being open to cordial partnership.


The motto of “defending the Homeland from afar”[22] is reiterated in the white paper, which entails expending all non-military routes to prevent the country from being harmed in the first place. The objective of the “all-people” defense strategy is to employ these other capacities to “prevent and push back the risks of war,”[23] while the military forces remain “at the center” of the system. The military option is the last line of defense, and it should only be deployed if all other peaceful measures have failed. The paper also states that enhancing national defense and security capacities is accomplished not only by acquiring or updating weapons and armaments but also by focusing on the human aspect, which is the essential content of the national defense policy.


The paper’s characterization of the party-military relationship is a big letdown for the proponents of military professionalization, as political indoctrination continues to be a key aspect of the armed forces, and the military will continue to engage in economic activity through many of its important economic-defense divisions.[24] The Communist Party of Vietnam continues to exercise “absolute, direct, and all-round leadership” over the military, and themes highlighted in the white paper such as “men before arms” identify “patriotism…political consciousness and steadfastness” as essential characteristics of the armed forces, as well as “loyalty to the Communist Party’s revolutionary cause.”[25] Due to the ascendancy of conservatives in the Party, there has been a general slowing in military modernization and professionalization. Furthermore, the white paper predicts that the military will most likely maintain a Soviet-style organizational structure for the time being.


The paper also states that Viet Nam is not engaged in an arms race and that the national military budget should not be a financial hardship. Viet Nam is not reluctant to mention details of its weapons in the paper, making it transparent as part of Viet Nam’s national defense policy and capability. It also contributes to confidence-building measures and deeper understanding between Viet Nam and other nations. [26]


The National Defense Paper of Vietnam 2019 describes the country’s defense posture concisely. It is basically an attempt to make military matters more transparent in the public view, and it clearly expresses Vietnam’s perception of growing foreign threats to its national sovereignty, as well as its commitment to foster a peaceful global environment. Although it’s still only the tip of the iceberg in terms of military strategy, it contributes to the clarification and expansion of Vietnam’s defense and military-strategic principles. This paper is chock-full of warnings to China as well as opportunities for the US. The prospect of Chinese domination in Vietnam has forced the US-Vietnam security cooperation to be upgraded. As is always the case, the point is how the rhetoric translates into the realities that Vietnamese officials will encounter in the future.

(Megha Saravanan is an Aerospace Engineer by training and is currently pursuing her Master of Art’s degree in Diplomacy, Law, and Business from Jindal School of International Affairs. Her research interest are military strategy, weapons, and emerging warfare. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)


[1] Heng, Kimkong. 2022. “2022/36 ‘Cambodia-Vietnam Relations: Key Issues and the Way Forward’ by Kimkong Heng.” 2022 (36).

[3] Thu, Huong Le. n.d. “Vietnam Draws Lines in the Sea.” Foreign Policy.

[4] Parameswaran, Prashanth. n.d. “Vietnam’s New Defense White Paper in the Spotlight.” Accessed May 4, 2022. HTTPS://THEDIPLOMAT.COM/2019/11/VIETNAMS-NEW-DEFENSE-WHITE-PAPER-IN-THE-SPOTLIGHT/.

[6] “Vietnam Publishes 2019 Defence White Paper, with Eye on Boosting Self-Sufficiency.” Janes, November 26, 2019.

[7] Parameswaran, Prashanth. n.d. “Vietnam’s New Defense White Paper in the Spotlight.” Accessed May 4, 2022. HTTPS://THEDIPLOMAT.COM/2019/11/VIETNAMS-NEW-DEFENSE-WHITE-PAPER-IN-THE-SPOTLIGHT/.

[10] “Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper: Preparing for a Fragile Future.” 2019. Asia Maritime Transparency

[11] “Vietnam Publishes 2019 Defence White Paper, with Eye on Boosting Self-Sufficiency.” Janes, November 26, 2019.

[12] Thu, Huong Le. n.d. “Vietnam Draws Lines in the Sea.” Foreign Policy.

[13] “Vietnam Publishes 2019 Defence White Paper, with Eye on Boosting Self-Sufficiency.” Janes, November 26, 2019.

[16] “Vietnam Publishes 2019 Defence White Paper, with Eye on Boosting Self-Sufficiency.” Janes, November 26, 2019.

[17] “Vietnam Publishes 2019 Defence White Paper, with Eye on Boosting Self-Sufficiency.” Janes, November 26, 2019.

[19] Thu, Huong Le. “Vietnam’s New Defense Whitepaper.”, December 22, 2019.

[20] Heng, Kimkong. 2022. “2022/36 ‘Cambodia-Vietnam Relations: Key Issues and the Way Forward’ by Kimkong Heng.” 2022 (36).

[24] “Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper: Preparing for a Fragile Future.” 2019. Asia Maritime

[26] “Viet Nam National Defence White Paper Clearly Expresses the Nature of Peace and Self-Defence – National Defence Journal.” n.d.

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