Vietnam’s Area Denial Strategy and the South China Sea Dispute

February 1, 2017

Nicolas Jouan

US Navy, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_031119-N-8590G-001_USS_Vandegrift_(FFG_48)_arrives_in_Ho_Chi_Minh_City,_Vietnam.jpg

 

In October 2016, U.S. Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, advocated in a ground-breaking article the demise of A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) as a stand-alone term. According to him, the term became so widely used that it had lost any kind of empiricist accuracy. Not only have international observers become more shy in using the acronym since then, but one could also argue that A2/AD does not fit the evolving security situation in the South China Sea (SCS) anymore, where it was extensively used in the first place.

Vietnam used to be a flagship of area denial strategy in practice. With maritime claims clashing directly with China’s ones in the South China Sea, most notably in the Paracel and Spratley islands, Vietnam became a major East Asian security flashpoint over the past few years. The equation is simple, but its solution difficult: China is a bigger, richer, and more populous country, whose challenging behaviors threaten Vietnam’s interests. Consequently, Vietnam chose to balance against its neighbor. In 2013, some observers boldly announced Vietnam’s adoption of A2/AD strategy when the first of a six-strong fleet of Kilo-class attack submarines was delivered to Hanoi. Four years later, as the sixth and last submarine recently arrived at Cam Ranh harbor, what can be said of Vietnam’s conventional deterrence strategy?

From a national defense perspective, area denial should be divided into two different slices: conventional and non-conventional threats. The Vietnam People’s Navy’s capabilities were boosted by the acquisition of six Kilo submarines. The Russian-manufactured model, with its midship positioned sonars and anti-detection tiles, is designed to track and neutralize enemy-vessels. This costly $2 billion acquisition (SIPRI) is aimed at countering conventional threats at sea and, in case of conflict, compensating for at least a limited period of time the clear asymmetry between the Vietnamese and Chinese navies. In other words, Hanoi upgraded its conventional deterrence by severely raising the cost of conflict at sea for any potential opponent.

Such perspective is actually the most extreme and unlikely outcome. Military analysts are rather concerned by the emergence of more deceitful forms of warfare. The multiplication of so-called “blue-boats,” akin to militias at sea, short-circuits traditional interstate conflict management by intruding sovereign waters and harassing locals. China admittedly operates a fully-fledged fleet of blue-boats in order to, in its own words, “defend [its] sovereignty.” Blue-boats’ armament and training, though far below conventional navies, can sometimes reach significant levels, and their assumed ties to governments are frequently purposely unclear. Put more bluntly, blue-boats in the South China Sea dispute are aimed at spoiling one’s neighbor’s life by disturbing its fishing activities and shipping lines, redefining entirely the concept of conflict.

Vietnam’s answer to that threat is hidden in the details. It is only back in 2013 that Vietnam’s Marine Police was officially rebranded “Coast Guard” and started to play a bigger role in Hanoi’s security policy. An organizational overhaul, implementing regional commands, and steady investments were aimed at reinforcing Vietnam’s South China Sea monitoring capabilities and law-enforcement. Transnational threats such as piracy and smuggling conveniently justify the development of a Vietnamese coast-guard force, and broaden Hanoi’s military cooperation perspectives.

New political orientations participate in Vietnam’s balancing strategy by favoring interdependencies with regional and international partners. This issue might seem remote from area denial strategy, but both aspects are complementary. During his recent visit in Hanoi, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on developing Japanese investments into Vietnam, increasing development aid loans, and supplying six brand-new patrol ships to the Vietnamese Coast Guard. This long-awaited delivery will help Vietnam to increase its monitoring capabilities in the South China Sea and to counter non-conventional threats.

No third country expects to change Vietnam into a buffer state against China. After all, the so-called “three-nos” policy still officially shape Vietnam’s strategy: no military alliance, no foreign bases, and no reliance on a third party. But A2/AD still makes sense in the minds of the United States, Japan, or India. Hence the recent pouring in defense cooperation agreements and arms supplies destined at reinforcing Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty. The Pentagon provides training to Vietnam through its Maritime Security Initiative, designed to increase Southeast Asian nations’ maritime awareness. India might deliver Akash sol-air missiles to Vietnam in a move openly aimed at containing China, after having agreed to train Hanoi’s fleet of Sukhoi-30s.

What lies ahead in the South China Sea dispute is still unclear. The July 2016 PCA arbitration on China’s claims in the SCS, triggered by the Philippines, was not the milestone expected by partisans of international law. The tribunal declared indeed that the Chinese claims had no legal ground, but Manila reversed its course when the pro-China Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election in May 2016. Since then, Mr Duterte’s government has been very unclear regarding how to transform the arbitral award into political gains. Vietnamese leaders are resolutely silent about the award anyway, only mildly professing their wish to see international law respected.

The US presidential race and the victory of Donald Trump did nothing to simplify this ambiguous balance. Rex Tillerson, the hawkish secretary of state nominee, declared on January 11 that the United States will “make sure [to] defend international territories from being taken over by one country” in the South China Sea, provoking directly China’s position in the region. In contrast, Vietnam’s Communist Party Secretary General, Mr Nguyen Phu Trong, visited China on January 12-15, promising to President Xi Jinping a renewal of their bilateral relations, most notably, and strikingly, concerning the South China Sea dispute.

It is easy to accuse Vietnam to play smoke and mirrors in its maritime dispute with China. But it would be ignoring the situation’s inherent complexity. Hefty investments in naval and missile capabilities have ensured Vietnam’s A2/AD credibility. But these capabilities increasingly suffer from the same irrelevance as the term itself. With the passing of time, it becomes clear that Hanoi’s core interests reside in ensuring its fishing and shipping security, more than in preparing to counter a phantasmagoric all-out Chinese attack by sea.

The trick is, such threats to civilian activities are still emanating from state-actors, most notably China. Investing in surveillance and law-enforcement is therefore a convenient way to increase one’s presence at sea while skirting accusations of brinkmanship. It is why the future of Vietnam’s area-denial strategy is to be found in its ability to monitor and answer non-conventional threats as well as developing bilateral positive-sum relations with anyone having an interest in preserving the geopolitical balance in the South China Sea.

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  • Emily Han

    Fair assessment of Vietnam’s situation and available options. What missed in this analysis are: 1) Domestic ship builders are rolling out capable and inexpensive (1/2 the costs, relative to Japan (6) and Indian(4)) Coast Guard ships at a rate of 2-4 per year – ranging from 500 to 4,000 tons. The gap with Chinese fleet narrows and the ability for VCG to survey, intervene grows due to China having to equally, focus on Japan, Taiwan. 2) Unconfirmed but widely expected that Vietnam is already in the production mode for construction of 3,000 KCT-15 missiles from the 2009 technology transfer of 3M24-E (Kh-35EU) / Uran-EU. 3) In addition to 6 Kilos-class submarines, Vietnam is receiving 2 more Gepard 3.9 frigates in 2017 and either negotiate to build 2 more at home or contract Russia to do so if their Ba Son shipyard can’t meet upgrade deadline of 2018 . VPN will improve surface ships inventory with 4 and perhaps 6 by 2020.

    • Longchester Hamilton

      Vietnam is a complex and sophisticated country. Anyone who thinks he/she can understand it is better visiting each village and talk to the Vietnamese to truly understand the people since 2879 BC of the official founding.

      • Alex Thanh Nguyen

        the Vietnamese political and military elite are master strategicians & historians – especially when it comes to China, a neighbor of millenia. The Vietnamese are honestly even better than the Chinese in understanding and implementing Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

        • Longchester Hamilton

          Vietnam and China have settled the sea dispute at the Gulf of Tonkin already with the transfer of Bach Long Vi Island to Vietnam. This is the precedent. China and Vietnam should learn from this precedent and settle the sea dispute at Paracel Islands by transferring the Triton Island to Vietnam.

          • Alex Thanh Nguyen

            In an ideal scenario that would happen… but I’m afraid the Paracel & Spratlys hold higher strategic value in the eyes of all relevant parties.

          • Longchester Hamilton

            Vietnam and China at least should settle peace at each region separately and then focus mainly and fairly on the Spratly region. If there is escalated conflict at sea, let it be around the Spratly Islands areas.

        • Longchester Hamilton

          I am sure Vietnamese people know how to fight on land but fighting at sea, I don’t think Vietnamese people have that much experience. Both times in 1974 and 1988, Vietnamese people lost at Paracel and Spratly.

          • Alex Thanh Nguyen

            Yes, that maybe true. But believe me the Viets are quick learners and are catching up on the learning curve. I can be confident when I say there will be no easy meal, no easy pickings when it comes to Vietnamese-occupied islets and reefs.

          • Longchester Hamilton

            It is much more difficult to defend those islands at sea then at land. How is the communication going to happen when the enemies attack at sea instead of land?

  • Longchester Hamilton

    It seems like a lots of experts and professionals underestimate the power of 100 million Viets for fighting for independence of land and sea from foreign aggressors. That is when Vietnamese people are at their best.

  • zionistmarxistleninistleague

    This is a wishful thinking article. Trump pulled out of TPP and that’s why Vietnam reconnected with PRC. The US is now seen as the interloper here, not PRC.

    • Longchester Hamilton

      I am sure Vietnam is willing to dance with any major partners such as China, Russia, United States, India, etc.

      • Kiran MVV

        Not at the cost of her Flexibility or Freedom or foregoing a couple of islands I hope…

        • Longchester Hamilton

          I sincerely hope that the relationships of Vietnam/China and Korea/China can remain peaceful and progress to prosperity because it has been over 2,000 years since the Han Dynasty came to Vietnam and Korea. Let’s treat our guests with hospitality and welcoming. It is a win-win-win situation for all of us when we focus on peace and progress.

          • Kiran MVV

            Please include India/China in that list as well… let’s not forget that Buddhism spread to the rest of the East and South-East Asian continent from India, through China… And I have NO intention to see the already deteriorating ties between these countries see a new low…

  • UNCLV

    They are all Communist since 1930. Both one party syst. Soviet and China helped vn to face Usa.

    • Longchester Hamilton

      Before the arrival of the concepts of Communism and Capitalism, Vietnam and China have been joined together by Confucianism when the Han Dynasty of China brought that to Vietnam in 111 BC before Jesus Christ was born over 2,000 years ago.

      • UNCLV

        Yes Confucianism was dominant in Vn by 15th cent.From 10-15cent Buddhism were more influential . That why the French called us IndoChina-between Indo and China. Vietnamese language is different from Mandarin or Cantonese.

        • Longchester Hamilton

          The French called the three countries Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia together as Indochina. Actually Vietnam was even divided further into 3 regions known as Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.

          • Robert Bennett

            And the USA divided the country into two parts and prevented democratic election as promised at Geneva in 1954. It was the defeat of the USA that brought national unity after 188 years of foreign control.

          • Longchester Hamilton

            Vietnam was divided in 1527 after 30 years of having several different kings since the death of King Le Thanh Tong in 1497. Not until almost 300 years later that King Gia Long was able to unify Vietnam in 1802 after the death of King Quang Trung during the turbulent period of the country in the latter part of the 18th century. The French, Japanese, Americans replaced the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and the Manchurians, Mongolians, Chinese. Nothing new is under the sun except the repeated bravery of Vietnamese people to cherish their independence at any cost.

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