Beyond Vietnam's Defense White Paper

Posted on Friday, January 15, 2010 by Prashanth Parameswaran


Earlier last month, the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense (MoND) released its third white paper since 1998. The document is markedly more transparent than its predecessors. It provides multi-year defense budget numbers and extensively maps out the country’s security situation and defense structure and outlook.

However, the document reveals little about the country’s future strategic plans and priorities. It was silent on Vietnam’s recent two-billion dollar deal to buy six Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines from Russia, and was also relatively muted on the country’s simmering territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. These recent key developments beyond the white paper clearly point to a future strategy that is maritime-centric and focused on defending the country’s territorial claims.

This should come as no surprise. Vietnam is a coastal state that has a long coastline and close proximity to the South China Sea. Its strategy of “advancing seawards” is enshrined in several government declarations, most notably the informal ‘Maritime Strategy towards the Year 2020', formulated in 2007, which clearly states Vietnam’s intention to harness its maritime resources for economic development so that they can contribute more than fifty percent of the country’s GDP by 2020. “The priority is now being accorded to maritime issues”, concludes Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at Australian National University.

In order to exploit its maritime resources, Vietnam will have to protect its sovereignty, particularly from Beijing with which it has locked horns over the potentially oil and gas-rich Spratly and Paracel Islands. China has been increasingly assertive over the last few years, pressuring foreign firms not to develop Vietnam’s maritime sector in disputed areas, constructing new structures on key reefs, and beefing up its naval presence.

Vietnam’s future defense strategy will thus be heavily focused on acquiring the capabilities to address this threat. Experts agree that the Kilo submarines were at least partly geared at countering China’s burgeoning military capabilities. But they are only a small part of Hanoi’s broader naval ambitions in the near future, which will include assembling missile frigates, expanding naval cooperation with Southeast Asian states (including possible joint exercises), procuring more arms and technology, and enhancing the professionalism of its forces. Hanoi has also attempted to bolster its relationship with the United States, with Defense Minister Gen. Phung Quang Thanh meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon last month and some officials suggesting that nascent security ties could mature in the future to include eventual arms sales.

The extent to which Vietnam is able to achieve its goals will largely be determined by its financial capacity and ability to turn equipment into effective capabilities. The global financial crisis reduced the country’s defense budget as a percentage of GDP from 2.5% to 1.8% last year, and its continuing economic troubles may put some dents on its defense hopes.

Acquiring new technology is also hardly the quick fix it appears to be. Vietnam needs to develop a naval doctrine that incorporates these technological capabilities, and thus far it lacks even a coordinated marine policy. Furthermore, new equipment (like submarines) requires funding to make the force combat ready, and the transition period between acquiring equipment and fully integrating its force capabilities into a country’s existing force structure varies depending on the infrastructure and finances available.

Despite these constraints, one can expect Vietnam’s eyes to be set firmly on the sea in the years to come.

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