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As China Looms, Vietnam Aims to Develop a More Modern, Skilled Navy

By Ralph Jennings August 12, 2019

A Vietnamese military official advocates developing a more modern, better skilled navy that can hold off complex threats, mainly what experts believe to be increasing pressure from China.

A rear admiral and political commissar in Hanoi told the official Viet Nam News August 6 that the navy could not be "taken by surprise at any development.

"In this complicated situation that poses many threats to the country's defense and security, given the Navy's role as the key defender of the country's sovereignty, the Viet Nam People's Navy must do more to build a strong, developed, skilled and modern naval force that can fulfill all assigned missions," said the commissar, Phạm Văn Vững.

The commissar's words follow the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in March – Vietnam says at the hands of China.

More recently, Chinese coast guard boats have approached a Vietnamese undersea energy exploration site near Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam vie for sovereignty over tracts of the sea where these two incidents have occurred. These two upsets are just the latest between the territorial rivals dating back centuries.

Naval improvements would help Vietnam deter China, analysts believe, though Vietnamese naval firepower is unlikely to come near equaling that of China.

"I think all they can think of doing is being a bit of a deterrent," said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Neither Vietnam nor China wants somebody to fire the first shot. That would be pretty serious. So, Vietnam sends in vessels to sort of block China."

Navy, present and future

Today's Vietnamese navy has 65 vessels including six submarines and six frigates, according to research database GlobalFirePower.com. It needs a "mastery of modern weapons" and "careful planning" of logistics issues, the commissar said earlier this month via Viet Nam News.

China today has one of the world's most powerful navies at 714 vessels including 76 submarines, 33 destroyer and an aircraft carrier, GlobalFirePower.com says.

China claims about 90 percent of the disputed sea, overlapping Vietnam's smaller claim as well as tracts that four other governments call their own. The other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Chinese maritime activity alarms particularly Vietnam because China controls the full Paracel archipelago, a South China Sea tract vehemently claimed by Hanoi. Much of Vietnam's population resents China over the maritime dispute.

"Vietnam realized that they had to modernize their navy to cope with the harassment from the Chinese coast guard," said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Foreign help

The Vietnamese navy should work with foreign governments, the commissar was quoted saying. It "must effectively coordinate with other military forces and civilian forces to build a whole-nation defense and people-based defense, while at the same time, maintaining diplomatic efforts, especially in terms of exchanges with naval forces from other countries," he said.

The Southeast Asian country acquired six U.S. patrol boats this year. It normally taps Russia for weaponry, such as missile stealth frigates, Hiebert said.

Washington may eventually push to send its aircraft carriers to Vietnam once a year, Thayer said. The U.S. government has been massing allies in Asia over the past two years to help contain China's maritime expansion.

More spats ahead?

China and Vietnam are used to conflicts over maritime sovereignty, and new ones come up despite diplomatic moves to solve previous ones.

They had already gotten into "confrontations" over fuel exploration near Vanguard Bank in the 1990s, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales.

Vietnam backed away from the site last year but never agreed to stay away in the long term, Thayer said. This time, he said, Chinese vessels reached Vietnam's continental shelf.

"So, now we have the arrival of this Chinese ship this year, and it's operating on the Vietnamese side of the exclusive economic zone," Thayer said.

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