An anti-Chinese protest in Vietnam last year. Photo: AP
The visit last month of Xi Jinping to Vietnam—the first visit of a Chinese president in 10 years—came at a crucial point in deteriorating relations, resulting from China’s construction of artificial islands and assertion of sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea (referred to as the East Sea in Vietnam). Xi’s visit was also significant coming shortly before Vietnam’s five-yearly congress in January, amid some uncertainty over whether the new leadership will lean toward Beijing or Washington.
Hanoi’s ties to Washington have grown since the Chinese parked an offshore oil rig off Vietnam’s coast in May 2014, and Xi’s visit last month was seen by many, including Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnamese expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, as an attempt to counter America’s influence. Thayer believes Xi used the visit to request a toning down by the Vietnamese side of a number of recent public comments asserting Hanoi’s sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Yet Hanoi has long been adept at playing Beijing off of Washington, as part of its “three nos” foreign policy—no military alliances, not allowing any country to set up military bases on Vietnamese territory, and not relying on any country for combating others (although an interesting juxtaposition occurred as Xi addressed the Vietnamese National Assembly while Japan’s defense minister was meeting his counterparts in Hanoi).
Despite the heated rhetoric over sovereignty issues, and the talks with Tokyo, Hanoi will be reluctant to hamper significant bilateral economic relations with Beijing. China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner—trade and investment between Vietnam and China grew a robust 16% in the first nine months of 2015, reaching some US$60 billion. During this same period, Vietnam exported some $12.4 billion in goods to China.
During the meeting between Xi and Vietnamese party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, the latter proposed that the two Communist nations lead the way forward in implementing the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and agree on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). For his part, President Xi emphasized China’s economic muscle, pledging $300 million in concessional loans toward the construction of the Mong Cai-Van Don highway project in the northern province of Quang Ninh and another $250 million in preferential loans toward the Cat Linh-Ha Dong urban overhead railway project in Hanoi. Xi also promised $129 million in social welfare aid over the next five years toward construction of schools and hospitals.
Yet amongst all the announcements of Chinese economic assistance, Japan and Vietnam agreed to hold their first ever joint naval exercise, with a Japanese warship expected to visit Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic naval base in Vietnam’s East Sea.
Before Xi left Hanoi, he addressed a crowd of young Vietnamese, declaring, “China rejects that a country should seek hegemony once it grows strong,” adding, “China will deepen mutually beneficial cooperation, interconnection and interworking with neighboring countries including Vietnam, [and] will always be a close comrade with socialist countries, a reliable friend with developed countries.”
Indeed, in the face of perceived threats from Beijing, Vietnam has embarked on its greatest military build-up in decades, albeit starting from a low base following economic problems after the Vietnam War and a dwindling level of support from its weakened Cold War patron, the Soviet Union. Yet Russia is now back, providing meaningful levels of support, according to Reuters, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the International Institute of Strategic Studies and Vietnamese state media:
Vietnamese crews, supported by Russian advisors, operate four Russian-made, Kilo-class submarines from a purpose-built base in Cam Ranh Bay in south-central Vietnam.
Another two submarines are expected to arrive in 2016 and the entire fleet is expected to be fully operational by 2017. The Vietnamese 636.3MV Kilos are equipped with both anti-ship and land attack variants of the Klub cruise missile, heavy torpedoes and mines.
Vietnam is also acquiring Russian-designed ships equipped with anti-ship missiles and other weapons. The fleet currently includes 2 Gepard frigates, 6 corvettes and 18 fast-attack missile boats. New vessels will have enhanced anti-submarine weapons.
Less visibly, Vietnam has strengthened its coastal defenses with anti-ship artillery batteries and the mobile Bastion K-300P system, equipped with Orynx cruise missiles. The Orynx can also be fired from ships, planes and submarines.
Foreign security experts say Vietnam has made it potentially costly for China’s navy to operate within 200-300 nautical miles of its coast—an ability it did not have a decade ago.
This may be further boosted by a future deal to buy the Indian-Russian produced BrahMos missile, a supersonic anti-ship weapon that is the world’s fastest cruise missile. Chinese analysts say Beijing’s reclaimed islands in the South China Sea will give it extra protection against Vietnam’s strength from its southern coast.
Vietnam operates an expanding fleet of 30 Russian-supplied Su-30 MK2 fighter-bombers, which patrols its military bases over the Spratlys. Hanoi also has older squadrons of Su-27s and even older Russian craft.
Though far outnumbered by China’s air force, which includes similar planes, Hanoi’s military chiefs have upgraded and expanded air defenses. It has obtained Israeli AD-STAR 2888 early warning radars and Russian-built S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries.
Vietnam had extensive experience in using earlier Russian-built systems to shoot down U.S. jet fighters and B-52 bombers over northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Hanoi is also in talks with European and U.S. arms manufacturers to buy additional fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and unarmed surveillance drones.
Vietnam maintains a conscript-based force of an estimated 450,000 troops.
It has recently started manufacturing Israeli rifles under license, and also used Israeli and European technological help to refit up to 850 Russian T-59 and T-55 tanks.
Parliament this year passed laws lengthening compulsory military service from 18 months to two years, as well as extending deferments to allow more university students to serve after completing their studies.
During Chinese President Xi’s visit to Vietnam last month, he invoked the Golden Rule during his parting speech, saying, “Chinese people advocate such belief, do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” While Vietnamese may have appreciated the fine rhetoric emanating from the Chinese leader, paraphrasing a quote from Confucius, Hanoi’s leadership appears not to be so taken in, given the extensive military buildup as outlined above.
Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]