PACIFIC OCEAN (April 22, 2009) Rear Adm. Mark Vance, commander, Carrier Strike Group Three, welcomes Senior Col. Do Minh Tuan, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Vietnam People's Armed Forces Air Defense Force, aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Stennis and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9 are on a scheduled six-month deployment to the western Pacific Ocean

Vietnam’s Strategy: Change, Continuity and Balance

In November 2019, Vietnam released it’s latest defence white paper off the back of several years of escalations and confrontations with China in the South China Sea. While much of the paper seems rooted in Vietnam’s traditional defence doctrine, several interesting key additions have appeared which may signal some critical shifts in how Vietnam faces down regional threats. In this piece, Alex Stafford examines the white paper and the possibilities open to Vietnam’s military.

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The release in November of Vietnam’s first defence white paper (DWP) in ten years has given the analyst community, and not least China, a great deal to think about. Coming as Vietnam takes up the leadership of ASEAN for 2020 and a two year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its emphasis on cooperation and peaceful means to resolve differences compliment Vietnam’s vision of its role in the international community. More meaningfully the paper contains something of a shift in the long-established “Three Nos” that have long formed the cornerstone of Vietnam’s defence policy. The greater scope in defence diplomacy and cooperation with foreign powers allowed by this revision could herald a new phase of Vietnamese defence policy and provide opportunity for those wishing to aid in balancing Chinese regional hegemony. Modernisation of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA), with emphasis on the Navy (VPN) and Air Force (VPAF), is also emphasised along with greater defence diplomacy. However, deficiencies in VPA culture and doctrine along with the organisational shortfalls of ASEAN, continued influence of Marxist ideology, and the remaining constraints imposed by the modified “Three Nos” policy all pose problems that must be carefully managed if Vietnam is to weld the pieces into and effective strategy.

Vietnam’s relationship with China has always been a balancing act. In recent years, as disputes with China over resources in the South China Sea (SCS) have escalated, Hanoi has employed a skilful strategy of diplomatic engagement with Beijing on a range of issues while simultaneously seeking to deter Chinese incursions into Vietnam’s EEZ. This balancing act is demonstrated in the latest DWP, which avoids offending Chinese sensibilities by presenting a redacted version of history. Although wars against France and the US make the expected appearance in establishing the historical context, no mention of either the 1979 war with China or clashes in the Paracels and Spratleys in 1974 and 1988 are made. Also conspicuous by their absence are the more recent Haiyang Shiyou 981 incident of 2014 and the 2019 standoff at Vanguard Bank, although China’s unilateral actions are clearly alluded to. In fact, the DWP manages to show just how seriously Hanoi takes the danger of escalation in the SCS without saying explicitly who poses a threat to Vietnamese interests. Despite these diplomatic omissions, the 2019 DWP fulfils the purpose of warning China that Vietnam will not be bullied in the South China Sea and signalling to other powers, most obviously the US, that Vietnam is keen for greater strategic engagement.

Diplomacy and multi-lateral cooperation feature heavily in the paper. This emphasis on cooperation stands in deliberate opposition to China’s preferred method of bilateral negotiations, where it can use it’s superior weight advantageously rather than face a coalition of smaller nations. This issue is illustrated by the ongoing effort to establish a Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS between the ASEAN nations and China. Despite efforts and an agreement to conclude the negotiations by 2022 the outlook for the COC are bleak, as China is unlikely to agree to anything with legal teeth. Vietnam is expected to use its chairmanship of ASEAN to push the SCS issue, and as Article 1 of the ASEAN Charter lays out, members are bound to take a role to “maintain and enhance peace, security and stability…in the region.” The reality is that the consensus-seeking nature of ASEAN, combined with the significant influence of China on the organisation, means that forging ASEAN into a cohesive block to negotiate with China is probably beyond Vietnam’s capabilities for the moment. Indeed, Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen, who is very much Beijing’s creature and a man on the inside of ASEAN, has made it clear that it is not for ASEAN to solve disputes in the SCS as it is not a judicial body. This discord over the SCS is well documented – ASEAN failed to release a joint communique after the 2012 summit due to disagreements concerning the SCS and again in 2017 the Philippines was unable to get the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration or even a mention of Chinese land reclamation operations thanks to sustained lobbying by China. With most if not all other Southeast Asian nations either unwilling to stick their neck out for fear of Chinese ire or tacitly supporting Beijing, it is hard to see what forward progress will be made even with Vietnam setting the agenda.

However, Vietnam’s international engagement is not limited to ASEAN, and the language of the DWP gives out some subtle signals. By using the term “Indo-Pacific region” at one point Hanoi gives a nod to and implies sympathy with the US’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FAOIP) strategy. In mentioning this and other initiatives such as India’s Look East policy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Vietnam is seeking to establish itself as an involved actor that is open for engagement. While China maintains the top spot in Vietnam’s hierarchy of international relationships, holding the title of “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Partnership” since 2009, relations with other major powers like India and Russia have steadily gained in importance. Japan also enjoys an increasing strategic partnership and has emerged as an important partner particularly in the defence realm, where cooperation agreements and naval exercises have gained headlines over the past year. Greater defence diplomacy is high on Hanoi’s agenda and the DWP says that “Vietnam welcomes vessels of navies, coast guards, border guards, and international organisations to make courtesy or ordinary port visits or stop over in its ports to repair, replenish logistics and technical supplies.” Once more this stands contrary to Beijing’s preferences – one bone of contention in the COC negotiations being a proposal by China to limit the visits of foreign naval and coast guard vessels to the region.

The most interesting changes to Vietnam’s defence strategy however is the modification of the so-called “Three Nos” which have long been the basis of Vietnam’s defence policy – no foreign alliances, no siding with one country against a third and no foreign bases on Vietnamese soil. For twenty years these principles have guided Vietnamese defence diplomacy and their inclusion again in 2019 shows continuity in Hanoi’s thinking. They have however come to be seen by some onlookers as a hindrance to Vietnam fully engaging in security partnerships. The latest white paper has added an additional no – no use or threat of force in international relations. This pacifistic addition to the original three looks like a largely throw-away comment to further align Vietnam with international norms of non-aggression. More likely it is an effort to signal to China in the wake of increased confrontation in the SCS that Vietnam will not seek to escalate any situation militarily. It is also likely an attempt to again balance the signalling made elsewhere in the DWP where an intriguing caveat has been added. This caveat, which has become known as the “One Depending” says that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries.” The ambiguity of this statement gives the Vietnamese military cover to pursue far greater options with foreign defence cooperation while avoiding explicit commitments. As the DWP also emphasises increased engagement on non-traditional security threats such as cyber and terrorism it is likely that Vietnam will use the cover provided by the One Depending to increase engagement with foreign powers in ways not explicitly aimed at countering China and the SCS. Where this could lead is anybody’s guess, and it does leave the door slightly ajar for increased foreign involvement. Anyone expecting to see a US naval base in Cam Ranh Bay or even just joining in with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue any time soon will be sorely disappointed however, as these remain far too provocative towards Beijing to be in the Vietnamese interest.

A final feature of Vietnamese strategy for 2019 centres around the often overlooked sphere of military doctrine. While the document as a whole is demonstrates calculated change and careful balance to Vietnam’s strategic thinking, there appears to be no advance in military professionalisation or reform of force structures. The strategy of “all people national defence” is centre stage and fits conceptually at many levels, be it for diplomatic efforts to avoid escalation or the mobilisation of the population via military reserves or involvement in the maritime militia. However despite the paper’s talk of military modernisation, the conservative influence of General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his faction is clearly visible and the supremacy of the Party’s control over the military is firmly espoused. Comments like “loyalty to the revolutionary cause of the Communist Party” and “political consciousness and steadfastness” do not bode well for reform of a military which remains wedded to its Soviet roots. Perhaps such language is to be expected from a one-party Communist state and should not be overly concerning given that documents such as the DWP are not expected to contain detailed plans of force structure. However, for all the sound thinking on strategic means contained in the paper, the military dimension feels somehow lacking.

Indeed despite the comparatively high risk of military confrontation at sea and in the air, the Vietnamese military is overwhelmingly focused on the army to the extent that the VPN and VPAF are hardly seen as separate services to the army. Despite robust official defence spending of 2.36% of GDP (a figure that likely belies greater expenditure) and some notable defence acquisitions clearly aimed at deterring China, the ability of the Vietnamese military to effectively defend the nation’s territory in the event of a military escalation with china has met detailed criticism. For example, although Vietnam has acquired six Kilo class attack submarines from Russia along with Su-30 jets over the past decade, a lack of realistic training, hidebound command and control and a severe lack of experience in maritime aviation and combined operations make it unlikely that Vietnam is in a position to use these platforms effectively. Patchwork acquisition in radar systems over the years has resulted in embarrassingly deficient coverage of the SCS and further questions the effectiveness of systems like the K300-P coastal defence missiles that Vietnam bought in 2011. Given that Vietnam’s military tactic in a shooting war with China would to deliver an early “bloody nose” attack to discourage further escalation and avoid a conflict of attrition that they could not hope to win, the margin for error created by these deficiencies calls the feasibility of the military side of all-people national defence into question.

None of these problems are insurmountable if Vietnam embraces the opportunities on offer for greater cooperation. Although large question marks hang over force modernisation and professionalisation, Hanoi clearly has a good grasp of the strategic challenges and how to handle them. The 2019 DWP outlines a considered approach to dealing with the changing, multi-polar world that it itself outlines. On the diplomatic front Vietnam is well positioned as ASEAN chair to table the issues other members would prefer to avoid. To this end it may prove more beneficial in the long term if moves were made to promote the ASEAN minus X model of consensus building to form a Southeast Asian block to address security issues in the SCS, without the involvement of the non-littoral nations. To this end Vietnam could even find an ally in Indonesia, which it has joined this year on the UNSC and for whom recent tensions with China around the Natuna islands could prove sufficient motivation. The addition of the Depending On clause to Vietnamese defence policy looks to be a step in the right direction to foster greater defence cooperation with not just the US, but potentially all nations. Only time will tell what benefits this approach could lead to, and any initiatives will certainly be calculated to fall below anything that could overtly concern Beijing.

While force structure and military culture are a matter for Hanoi to address alone (if it is willing), to this end the most obvious source of inspiration could be the PLA itself. Over the past decade the PLA has undergone significant reforms to modernise its structure and place the air and naval arms at the forefront of its capabilities, overcoming army-centric attitudes and vested interests not entirely unlike those of the VPA. The deficiencies in training and doctrine could effectively be addressed with the help of other credible defence partners that the new white paper allows for. Large scale US involvement in VPA training or procurement is highly unlikely, but as increased exchanges and training with Japan and close relations with India show, Vietnam will not be short of offers of help should it ask.

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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in Hong Kong, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime security issues.

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Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Walter M. Wayman/Released