SINGAPORE - Vietnam will procure six Russian-built Kilo-class attack submarines "to defend" the country. Vietnam's Defense Minister, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, made the comment June 5 at the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore 5. Analysts put the price tag for the deal at just over $3 billion.
The announcement comes in the wake of official protests lodged by Hanoi over a May 26 incident when three Chinese vessels operated by the State Oceanic Administration harassed the Binh Minh 02, a Vietnamese oil exploration seismic survey vessel belonging to the Vietnam Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam). One of the Chinese vessels cut the ship's survey cable. The incident occurred within Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone.
The incident causes "considerable concern on the maintenance of peace and stability in the East Sea [South China Sea]," he said. Further, Vietnam has "exercised patience in managing the incident with peaceful means in accordance with the international laws and the principle of determinedly protecting our national sovereignty."
The incident caused outrage in Vietnam, resulting in public protests at the Chinese embassy and hacker attacks on Chinese government websites.
Thanh met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at a bilateral meeting during the Shangri-La to discuss issues, including the incident. The Dialogue is organized by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and held annually each June in Singapore.
Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, Deputy Minister of Defense, also confirmed the Kilo submarine deal and added that Vietnam was also buying "Su-30 fighters and surface-to-air missiles." However, the procurements were not tied to the May 26 incident and were "part of our weapons appreciation program for enhancing our capabilities." He said Vietnam has a "legitimate need to upgrade our military capability."
Vinh emphasized that the recent incident with China was a "civilian clash" and not a military issue. Vietnamese law enforcement and maritime agencies are responsible for these types of problems, he said. "What happened, happened" and it must he handled within the guidelines of international law by peaceful means. However, Vinh stressed that Vietnam would use "all means to protect our national sovereignty."
China's military has been expanding its capabilities and influence in the South China Sea with a new submarine base on Hainan Island, and preparations are underway to begin sea trials of its first aircraft carrier.
China and Vietnam have been bumping into one another in the South China Sea since the 1970s. In 1974 China took the Paracel Islands by military force from then-South Vietnam, and Hanoi has continued to claim sovereignty over the islands. Periodic arrests of Vietnamese fishermen in the area have also caused frustration in Hanoi.
In 1988 China and Vietnam fought over the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea. China sank two Vietnamese naval vessels and opened fired on Vietnamese troops occupying the reef. A video documentary widely aired in Vietnam, dubbed the "Spratly Islands Massacre," available on YouTube, allegedly shows a Chinese frigate gunning down around 30 Vietnamese soldiers on the reef.
The latest incident has raised concerns China is becoming aggressive in the South China Sea and risks sparking a conflict. However, a member of the Chinese delegation attending the Shangri-La Dialogue said the Chinese vessels involved in the May 26 incident might be acting unilaterally without the consent or encouragement of Beijing. The State Oceanic Administration and other non-military maritime patrol and law enforcement organizations have in the past acted carelessly, he said. These organizations are often fighting over budgets and attempting to justify their existence, thus they sometimes "act muscularly."