On Jan. 17, Vietnam unveiled its first homemade warship. Seemingly a heavily modified Russian Tarantul corvette, the new ship is equipped with anti-ship missiles and artillery systems.
Although unimpressive by modern warship standards, this unveiling reflects Vietnam’s concerted efforts at developing its regional naval power to offset the growing capabilities of its larger neighbor, China.
Vietnam appears to be upping the ante in its disputes with China over the past few years in the South China Sea. As Vietnam’s economy grows, it is faced with the same insatiable appetite for oil as China did during its own reforms. Some of its major offshore oilfields, such as the Bach Ho, are expected to run out in 2020, thus making the need to explore and drill in new basins all the more pressing.
However, China has proved that it is willing and able to disrupt these activities through the combined efforts of its Navy and its marine paramilitary forces. The former is well on the way to achieving its goal of having a blue-water Navy by 2050, with its first aircraft carrier already undertaking sea trials.
While much speculation and effort has focused on the growth of Chinese naval power over the past decade, little notice has been paid to Vietnam’s growing military ambitions. In 2009, it bought six Russian Kilo-class diesel attack submarines for about $3.2 billion, a considerable chunk of its defense budget and Russia’s largest naval export contract.
In late 2011, the Dutch Schelde shipyard signed a contract to build four Sigma-class corvettes for Vietnam, with two being built in the country itself under Dutch supervision.
It is not only the Vietnamese Navy that is upgrading its fleet; the Vietnamese Marine Police (VMP) has purchased several offshore patrol vessels from the Dutch Damen group, including one that is more than 1,000 tons and can carry a helicopter, which will be the largest ship in the VMP. This would give the VMP considerable punch against increased numbers of 1,000-ton-plus vessels of the Chinese Marine Surveillance Agency in the South China Sea.
These are not purely turnkey imports. The inclusion of licensed production and the building of specialized maintenance facilities along with the vessels themselves are helping establish a nascent naval research and development infrastructure within Vietnam. And the timing helps Vietnam take advantage of China’s inability to acquire foreign arms imports (either due to embargoes or fears of reverse-engineering, as in the case with Russia), as well as help form strategic alliances with China’s old rival, India.
The latter stated in September that it will sell Vietnam the BrahMos cruise missile to augment Vietnam’s coastal deterrence suites, which already include the Russian Bastion system. It is perhaps not a coincidence that India made this decision at a time when the Indian state oil company, ONGC, announced plans to jointly explore and develop Vietnam’s claimant oil blocks in the South China Sea. India also is helping Vietnam train its crews for the new Kilo subs once they begin to arrive in 2014.
However, it is reasonable to wonder if Vietnam’s efforts are all in vain. The Vietnamese Navy has never had as much prestige as the Army, with the latter being the main force that decided the bloody Vietnam War.
Still, that appears to be changing, as Vietnamese state propaganda is striving to increase the visibility of its marine forces, especially in the garrisons in the Spratly Islands.
This growth of a semimanufactured provenance of the Navy is aimed to prepare its people for the possibilities of future offshore conflicts. The funding for the Navy also has been drastically increased over the past few years.
Strategically, Vietnam actually has the advantage over China. Far from being the underdog that Vietnam likes to portray itself to the world, it actually possesses some of the largest and most numerous of the disputed Spratly Islands, while China has only half a dozen reef-sized forts and pillboxes. While the ever-expanding Chinese fleet seems larger and more advanced, it has to travel vast distances to reach the ends of its claimant zone.
Vietnam, on the other hand, is contesting an area that is right on its doorstep. Its fleet of missile-armed light corvettes and submarines can strike and retreat into their homeports at will, while a stricken Chinese fleet would more or less be lost.
Vietnam does not need to match China ship for ship, but rather take its doctrine of guerrilla warfare to the high seas. An asymmetrical strategy, combined with the forging of timely alliances with China’s rivals, places Vietnam well for the coming conflict. Whether this turns out to be a hot war, however, is still likely to be decided at the conference tables. But one thing is certain, Vietnam is making sure it has all the best cards before sitting down to talk.
Gary Li is head of Marine & Aviation Forecasting, Exclusive Analysis, London.