Vietnam’s Rising Power on the Open Seas

By Hunter Marston

Vietnamese sailors stand in review during a welcoming ceremony for Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the Vietnamese Navy’s headquarters in Haiphong, Vietnam, May 31, 2015. Source: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Government Work.

While many observers have been excited about Vietnam’s economic prospects thanks to its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Vietnam’s rising power will also be manifest on the open seas. Vietnam has made concerted efforts to bolster its naval defense capabilities in recent years, acquiring six Coast Guard vessels from Japan and six high-speed boats from the United States this year. It will also operate a total of six Russian-made Kilo-class submarines by 2017.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has shown remarkable strategic foresight and made innovative diplomatic moves to deepen new partnerships with the United States, Japan, and the Philippines, in response to China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea. While Vietnam’s expansion of its Coast Guard fisheries surveillance unit has attracted international headlines, China has paid more attention to Vietnam’s emerging missile program. As Zachary Abuza, a Vietnam analyst at the National War College, points out, “the key to Vietnam’s defense modernization is its missile program. No one in Southeast Asia even comes close, and it is this that Beijing does think about.”

According to Vietnam expert Carl Thayer, all four of Vietnam’s Varshavyanka-class submarines are armed with cruise missiles which can launch underwater and have a range of 186 miles. Thayer reported in May that Russia has delivered 28 of the 50 anti-ship and land-attack missiles purchased by Vietnam. According to Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the Naval War College, Chinese defense analysts are carefully monitoring Vietnam’s military modernization, which has earned the country “ample respect” in China.

Beijing has made calculated diplomatic overtures toward Hanoi in an attempt to improve ties with its southern neighbor, with whom it has a long history of conflict, especially in the South China Sea. Most recently, a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed sea, with the coast guards of both countries having stepped up patrols as a result. China and Vietnam went through what was arguably the lowest point in bilateral relations over the past several decades in May 2014, when Beijing deployed an oil drilling rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, which led to explosive anti-China protests across Vietnam.

According to Goldstein, “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.” In November, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Hanoi amid rising tensions caused by China’s island reclamation in the South China Sea, and pledged to build on the enduring friendship between the two countries. Xi called on both sides to get through any “disruptions” to cordial relations and remain “trusted comrades” and “friends,” but he made no commitments that China would change its assertive behavior in the South China Sea. Despite profession of friendship, Beijing appears on its back foot diplomatically with Hanoi.

The Vietnamese government has displayed strategic initiative in its willingness to deepen its partnership with the United States, with which it normalized relations 20 years ago. The U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, which was announced in July 2013, encompasses cooperation on maritime capacity building, economic engagement, climate change, education, and the promotion of human rights. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in December 2013 an $18 million assistance package to add about five to six high-speed boats to Vietnam’s Coast Guard in the coming years. Washington recently announced another $20 million in maritime security assistance to Vietnam as part of a larger package to several Southeast Asian countries. This assistance will enable Vietnam to rapidly deploy forces for search and rescue missions and disaster response, and increase its maritime domain awareness.

Yet, despite its growing defense ties with Washington, Hanoi will most likely continue to take steps to ensure its quest for military modernization does not provoke overt suspicion in Beijing. For more than a thousand years, Vietnam has maintained its independence from China by employing a two-fold policy of adroit diplomacy and minimal deterrence. China remains Vietnam’s largest trading partner, and the two countries maintain a shared political model of Communist Party rule.

As Vietnam’s leadership prepares for a major transition following a party congress in early 2016, the Communist Party will seek to balance good relations with China with its burgeoning strategic partnerships elsewhere in the region and with the West. In the long run, however, Vietnam’s new maritime muscle may permit it to show more strategic resolve in the face of mounting tensions in the South China Sea. Based on Washington’s success thus far in using courtship and engagement to influence Vietnamese strategic decision-making, U.S. policymakers should continue to encourage increased cooperation by holding out security and economic incentives in exchange for increased bilateral defense cooperation. In the decade ahead, Vietnam will likely become more critical to overall U.S. security policy in Asia.

Mr. Hunter Marston is a former researcher with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


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