Vietnam’s Naval Upgrades Likely Will Limit but not Deter China in the South China Sea

By Zachary Abuza

Vietnamese Gepard-class frigate Dinh Tien Hoang undergoing maintenance in Da Nang during February 2014. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Vietnamese Gepard-class frigate Dinh Tien Hoang undergoing maintenance in Da Nang during February 2014. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

There has been significant media attention about Vietnam’s acquisition of six Russian-made Kilo-class submarines. Two have been delivered and are going through training runs. One is undergoing sea trials in Russia while the last three will be delivered by 2016. The submarines are equipped with SS-N-27 Sizzler anti-ship cruise missiles that have a range of about 190 miles. The $2 billion deal will give Vietnam the largest and most modern submarine fleet in Southeast Asia by 2016.

In addition to the submarines, Vietnam has made significant upgrades to its Soviet-era surface warfare capabilities. These upgrades include four Gepardclass light frigates from Russia with two more on order, four Molniya-class corvettes with four more being produced under license in Vietnam, and two Sigma-class corvettes on order from the Netherlands.

Vietnam’s missile capabilities are perhaps its greatest deterrent: Hanoi has 40 SS-N-26 Yakhont shore-to-ship cruise missiles, known as “carrier killers,”and is expected to order more. It has negotiated licenses for domestic production of three classes of advanced anti-ship missiles, including the P-5 SS-N-3 Shaddock, P-15 Termit, and Kh-35E/UE Uran SS-N-25 Switchblade. Other anti-ship missiles include French-built Exocets and Russian built SS-N-27 Sizzlers deployed on the Kilo-class submarines.

Vietnam’s small but modern air force is configured for anti-ship/maritime operations. Hanoi is pressing the U.S. government to lift its ban on lethal weapons sales so that Vietnam can purchase an unspecified number of Lockheed P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare planes.

In sum, Vietnam has acquired a significant arsenal to give it a deterrent capability against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. As one analyst told Reuters: “From the point of view of Chinese assumptions, the Vietnamese deterrent is already at a point where it must be very real.” Quantitatively, the Vietnamese military lags the Chinese military, but it has closed the qualitative gap.

Yet is Vietnam’s arsenal really a deterrent? For a deterrent (conventional or nuclear) to work, it must be credible, proportional, clearly communicated, and target what the other side values.

Vietnam has clearly not hidden anything about its military acquisitions. Even the Reuters report was carried in state-owned media. Hanoi wants Chinese military planners to take notice. And Vietnam’s hardware is focused on anti-naval operations: it knows that the navy is the pride of China, which will propel it to super power status and project its hegemony in the region. The Vietnamese are acutely aware of how vulnerable prestige items such as the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning actually are. Yet China places a far greater value on becoming the undisputed hegemon of the western Pacific, and the loss of several vessels may very well be an acceptable cost to it.

Is the threat proportional? Again the answer is yes. If armed conflict erupts, Vietnam will target China’s army and naval forces in the South China Sea. They will presumably not target population centers or threaten to escalate the conflict. Vietnamese military strategy is based on being able to inflict unacceptable damage in a limited period of time. But the quantitative difference between the Chinese and Vietnamese militaries gives Beijing an overwhelming advantage.

Is Vietnam’s deterrent capability credible? Here the answer is mixed. On the one hand, the Vietnamese have a long track record of resisting foreign domination and invasion. Vietnam’s nationalist populace demands a firm stance. Yet while the new hardware is being brought online quickly, few really know how, for example, Vietnam’s submarines have changed their military doctrine. Is their existence alone enough to deter China?

The irony is that people assume that Vietnam’s submarine force is a continuation of the country’s rich tradition of asymmetric warfare. And in a way it is. Chinese military planners really should take notice. No country in Southeast Asia has brought a more formidable arsenal on line so quickly. No other country in the region poses a military challenge to China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, or has demonstrated any willingness to use force to defend its claims.

Yet Vietnam’s asymmetric deterrent capability cannot credibly deter China’s own asymmetric, quasi-militarized operations. Deterrence will not work on measures short of war, including dredging and land reclamation, oil exploration rigs on Vietnam’s continental shelf, unilateral bans on fishing, harassment of Vietnamese oil exploration, or the declaration of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. China is too smart, too diplomatically adroit to push too hard. Beijing will push aggressively and then back down when ASEAN begins to coalesce and demand that China signs a binding code of conduct.

Should armed conflict erupt, Vietnam has the capability to inflict damage on China. But could Hanoi inflict enough damage to actually deter it? The answer is simply no, because Vietnam cannot fight a sustained conflict against its large neighbor, either economically or militarily. And that puts a big hole in its deterrent capability. Vietnam could hurt its northern neighbor, but the Chinese military could respond by escalating in ways that could threaten the Vietnamese regime’s hold on power. The dirty secret about deterrence is you have to be willing to follow through and lose what you might value most in the process.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is principal of Southeast Asia Analytics, and writes on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Follow him on twitter @ZachAbuza.



2 comments for “Vietnam’s Naval Upgrades Likely Will Limit but not Deter China in the South China Sea

  1. John Lone
    December 22, 2014 at 14:24

    I agreed with your assessment about Vietnam deterrent capability against China, Vietnam has 2 options to change its capabilities:

    1) Vietnam must full fledge rid of communism and align with Japan and America (flow of hi-tech weapons use against Chinese aggression)

    2) Vietnam should possess nuclear weapons as an effective deterrent against China.

    • Jason Lee
      October 4, 2015 at 11:57

      I totally agree!

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