A delicate balancing act

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Singapore

If any country in the region should have an awareness of its security environment, it should be Vietnam. In modern times it has been a French colony; then occupied by Japan during the Second World War; then fought a war of liberation; was divided in half; fought another war involving the United States and won that; invaded Cambodia and was in turn invaded by China. The Chinese invasion of 1979 was the last major land conflict for Vietnam – but was not the end of hostilities.

Like all other nations in Asia, Vietnam is watching the rise of China with ambivalence. With a growing economy comes greater military power and China has been doing a lot of muscle flexing right in the middle of Vietnam’s back yard, the South China Sea – or the East Sea, according to Hanoi. At the same time, the two countries are trading partners and both are under the rule of monolithic communist parties with good fraternal links. Both countries have instituted policies of economic liberalization at about the same time – though China seems to have adopted greater flexibility in some areas.

In security terms, Vietnam has three large problems if it considers the possibility of dealing with a hostile and aggressive China. The first is the sheer scale of the difference in forces in favour of Beijing. The second is that they share a land border, which China has previously crossed in strength. The third is that Vietnam has a very long and exposed coast, running all the way down the western side of the South China Sea – making it vulnerable to assault from the sea.

To deal with these in order – size is important. Or rather, such a vast difference in size counts: The Chinese economy is at least 40 times the size of Vietnam’s and has around 1.1 billion more people. Also China is making huge strides in research and development – at a vast scale. Every year China adds another 2 million graduate engineers to its workforce. These differences are reflected in the size of the respective militaries and what must concern Vietnamese planners the most is the rapidly growing Chinese navy, which recently started trials of its first aircraft carrier.

Secondly: the land border. The countries share a border that is 1,300 kilometres long, meaning that defence in depth of all of it is a problem. The 28 day invasion in 1979 by China is a remarkable event in the sense that it was for no real purpose other than “to teach Vietnam a lesson”. To launch a full scale invasion resulting in tens of thousands of casualties on each side – the numbers are disputed and vary wildly – for this purpose has few precedents in history. Presumably the “lesson” being taught to Vietnam was: don’t invade Cambodia and don’t get too close to the Soviet Union.

In fact, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in early February 1979 did the civilized world a favor by putting an end to the homicidal Khmer Rouge regime. The factors behind the invasion are complex but relate in large part to the long-standing historical animosity between the two countries. The Khmer Rouge did themselves no favours after coming to power by launching several brutal cross border invasions, along with massacres of Vietnamese civilians. However, the Khmer Rouge had aligned themselves with China, whereas Vietnam had signed a wide ranging cooperative agreement with the Soviet Union in November 1978.

The Chinese invasion of northern Vietnam was a response to these earlier events. After the Chinese withdrawal, both sides claimed victory. While there is plenty of evidence to support both points of view, it can be said that Vietnam proved a very tough nut to crack – hardly a surprise given the country’s vast experience in resisting occupation by external powers. For close to another decade China periodically lobbed shells over the border and continued to support the Khmer Rouge in their ultimately futile guerilla war, waged from sanctuaries near (and sometimes over) the Thai border.

Thirdly: Vietnam’s extended coastline and the South China Sea. Here, too, there have been military engagements with China. The most significant in terms of loss of life occurred on March 14, 1988 on part of the Spratley Islands known as Johnson Reef. Once again, the lead up had been years of disputed ownership claims and ceremonial planting of national flags on rocky outcrops. It all came to a head when on the same day soldiers from each side landed on the same island at the same time – and shouting soon turned into shooting. Ships also became involved in the engagement and a Vietnamese vessel was sunk. The Chinese had the better of the fight and ended up occupying the reef.

More recently, Chinese ships have continued a campaign of harassment directed at Vietnamese offshore resource research activities. As has been well documented, the South China Sea bed is known to be rich in hydrocarbons – so who owns what has become increasingly important in an energy hungry world. Every clash at sea with China must be a reminder to Hanoi of their vulnerability to attack from the sea.

In the early 1980s the Vietnamese economy was in real trouble. The country was struggling to recover from decades of wartime devastation and despite reunification of the county by armed force in 1975, living conditions were continuing to deteriorate, causing the Vietnam Communist Party to start losing authority. Consequently a reform program know as Doi Moi – Renovation – was kicked off in 1986. This led not only to a successful partial restructuring of the economy, but also to Hanoi altering its foreign policy from one of close ties only to the Soviet Union to a much broader approach. This was a prescient move, given the complete and unexpected collapse of the USSR three years later.

This has led, in turn, to the present situation where Vietnam enjoys good relations with the US as well as ASEAN. While China remains Vietnam’s biggest trading partner, the United States is not far behind and is the largest single purchaser of its exports.

In another notable development – probably connected with Vietnam’s nervousness about China – are Hanoi’s growing links with Delhi, which have recently seen a number of high-level military contacts and visits by Indian warships to the region. This move is also consistent with India’s “Look East” policy. It is possible that Vietnam might be a purchaser of the Indian / Russian BrahMos anti-ship missile. This would make sense Because Vietnam operates more than 20 – the numbers keep growing – members of the Su-30 series of aircraft. These are the same basic type that the Indian Air Force will use as the launch platform for its BrahMos missiles. If the deal goes ahead it will give Vietnam a small but important sea-denial asset.

Another weapon system of great importance to Vietnam is an acquisition of six Kilo class diesel electric submarines. The first has been launched in St Petersburg and is expected to be delivered before the end of the year, with the others all scheduled to arrive by 2014. Again, these submarines will give Vietnam an important sea denial capability.

All of this means that while Vietnam might not itself be able to control the disputed Paracel and Sprately Islands, it could make life very difficult for any other power that sought to exploit the area’s resources – including China. However, the best course of action for Vietnam will be to continue its engagement with the US, India and ASEAN in the hope that China will eventually agree to settle territorial disputes by multilateral negotiations rather than by the use of force.

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