By Carl Thayer, C3S Paper No.2084
Vietnam is stepping up its defense cooperation, particularly on maritime issues, with friends near and far.
In mid-November Vietnam dispatched two of its most modern warships on an unprecedented three-nation goodwill visit to Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
On November 5, two Gepard-class guided missile frigates, the Dinh Tien Hoang (HQ 011) and the Ly Thai To (HQ 012) weighed anchor at Cam Ranh Bay and set sail for Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok port crossing the equator (the line) while enroute. The ships embarked a complement of two hundred and twenty-eight officers and sailors under the command of Rear Admiral Nguyen Van Kiem, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army Navy. The frigates also embarked a naval Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopter, a first for the Vietnamese Navy on a goodwill visit.
The dispatch of the Gepard-class frigates is a clear indication that Vietnam has decided to step up its defense diplomacy. The goodwill visit to Southeast Asia is in reciprocation of port visits by warships from Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines to Vietnam. According to the People’s Army newspaper, the purpose of the visit was to “build trust and enhance friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding and confidence between the People’s Army Navy and the navies of Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.”
Earlier in March, Vietnam dispatched a hospital ship (HQ 561) to participate in Exercise Komodo a multilateral naval exercise held under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers and their eight dialogue partners (ADMM Plus) and hosted by Indonesia.
The Vietnamese flotilla arrived at Tanjung Priok on November 12 and paid a three-day friendly visit. Their program included formal welcoming ceremonies and reciprocal dinners, official meetings with their Indonesian Navy hosts, a courtesy call on local authorities, a visit to an Indonesian naval ship, and volleyball and soccer matches between crews. On the morning of their departure the Vietnamese ships participated in a search and rescue exercise with their Indonesian counterparts.
The frigates’ next port of call was Muara, Brunei Darussalam where they arrived on November 19. This marked the first occasion that Vietnamese navy ships visited Brunei. Earlier, in April, the Royal Brunei Navy’s Offshore Patrol Vessel, KDN Daruleshan, made Brunei’s first good will visit to the port of Hai Phong.
In December 2013 Vietnam and Brunei signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on bilateral naval cooperation and later agreed to a naval “hot line.” According to the People’s Army newspaper, the armed forces of Vietnam and Brunei “boosted
their cooperation in exchanging visits of delegations at all levels, sharing intelligence and information, training cadets, joint search and rescue and anti-piracy.”
The three-day port call included reciprocal ship visits and sporting events. On November 20, Rear Admiral Kiem paid a courtesy calls on the Chief of the Royal Brunei Navy and the Commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. The Vietnamese frigates departed on November 21.
On November 24, the Vietnamese frigates docked at South Harbor, Manila for their third and final port visit. This marked the first time that Vietnamese warships visited the Philippines since Vietnam was reunified in 1975. The Vietnamese commander invited the diplomatic community to inspect the frigates.
Rear Admiral Kiem paid courtesy calls on the Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad. He later called on the Chief of the Manila Police. As in Indonesia, the Vietnamese warships joined their Philippines counterparts in a search and rescue operation. The frigates departed on November 26.
In October 2010, the armed forces of Vietnam and the Republic of the Philippines signed a MOU on defense cooperation. A year later the two navies signed an MOU on enhancing bilateral relations and sharing information. Relations took another step forward in March 2012 when the parties adopted Standard Operating Procedures on Personnel Interaction in the vicinity of the Northeast Cay Island the Southeast Cay Island.
In March, the two navies established a working group and adopted a defense cooperation program for 2014-15. Three months later Vietnamese military personnel stationed on Southwest Cay hosted a social interaction with their Filipino counterparts on Northeast Cay. The two sides are now working on inaugurating a bilateral defense dialogue at deputy minister level.
Bilateral naval cooperation between the Philippines and Vietnam commenced in 1999 when both parties signed a MOU on defense cooperation. Since then the two navies have carried out coordinated patrols, exchanged information, set up naval “hot lines” and cooperated in dealing with illegal fishing.
During 2014 Vietnam also promoted defense cooperation with other regional states. In August, the People’s Army newspaper revealed that Singapore hosted a Vietnamese navy team in counter-terrorism exercises in the Gulf of Aden. On November 24, Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the Navy, Admiral Nguyen Van Hien, hosted a visit by the Chief of the Royal Thai Navy, Admiral Chansuvanich. Admiral Hien suggested Vietnam and Thailand strengthen naval cooperation in such areas as human resource training, logistics and technology.
In addition to the good will visit by Vietnamese frigates to Southeast Asia, Vietnam hosted the French Navy frigate Vendémiaire at Tien Sa port, Da Nang from November 15-19. The visit came under the framework of their bilateral defense cooperation plan for 2014. The French frigate joined Vietnamese naval forces for a search and rescue exercise.
On November 18, Vietnam’s Navy Command held a conference to review domestic construction of Project 1241 Tarantul-class or Molniya corvettes at Ba Son Shipyards under a 2009 contract with the Russian Almaz Central Design Bureau. Two corvettes, HQ 377 and HQ 378, were handed over in June after successfully completing live-fire exercises. The conference decided to continue with the construction of the remaining four corvettes.
On November 20, Thanh Nien newspaper reported that Vietnam would take delivery of its third enhanced Kilo-class submarine, HQ 194 Hai Phong, in early December.
Finally, on November 27, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Vietnam and Russia signed an intergovernmental agreement easing restrictions on the entry of Russian warships into Cam Ranh Bay. This agreement follows a similar understanding negotiated by Russia and Syria for entry into Tartus port. The agreement was signed during the visit of Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP), to Russia. According to a Russian Defense Ministry source, in future Russian warships will only have to notify port authorities immediately prior to their arrival.
The Russia-Vietnam agreement will privilege the Russian navy vis-à-vis all other navies that visit Vietnam. Although Vietnam has invited all navies to utilize the commercial facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, the Russian navy is being given special access due to Russia’s status as a comprehensive strategic partner and assistance in standing up Vietnam’s submarine fleet.
Russia and Vietnam are now discussing an agreement on a logistics center in Cam Ranh Bay for the Russian Navy on terms similar to another agreement between Russia and Syria related to Tartus.
Vietnam’s step up in defense cooperation in 2014 is a result of guidelines issued by the Ministry of National Defense and Politburo resolution no. 22 (April 10, 2013) on international integration (Nghị quyết của Bộ Chính trị về hội nhập quốc tế). Resolution no. 22, part III, lists the following as the third of five courses of action to be undertaken: “Enhance bilateral cooperation activities in defense and security with neighboring countries, ASEAN countries, major powers, traditional friends; gradually deepen and raise the effectiveness of cooperation.”
The Vietnam Navy’s uptick in defense cooperation comes at a propitious time. In December the VCP will convene the tenth plenum of the Central Committee. This meeting will give guidance on major policy documents to be submitted to the twelfth national party congress scheduled for early 2016. It is highly likely the national party congress will endorse an increase in defense spending and give priority to the continued modernization of the navy and air force and international defense cooperation.
(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)