Rising tensions in the South China Sea are causing an arms race between all the nations in the region. If you are a weapons exporter, it’s currently a good place to do business — there’s a high demand for almost every piece of hardware or weapons system that will offer an edge — particularly by those smaller nations who are afraid of the rather impressive might of the People’s Liberation Army. One of the nations seeking to bolster its armed forces is Vietnam.
Sino-Vietnamese relations are not as cordial as one would expect from two nations governed (supposedly) by the doctrine of Marx. China has recently sought to re-assert itself in the region with both carrot and stick as President Obama’s ‘Pivot to the Pacific’ dies a quick death in the face of the new US Administration, and this has resulted in a rather uncomradely behaviour — China has explicitly threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if exploratory gas drilling, licensed by Vietnam, was not stopped. Inside Vietnam’s borders, anti-Chinese demonstrations, while not on the scale of the 2014 riots, have continued.
The stick that China wields when interacting with nations regarding the South China sea is considerably larger than that of any other nation engaged in the dispute. Poor relations with China, combined with a very serious arms race across the region, has seen all branches of the Vietnamese armed forces begin a large-scale modernisation and strengthening program. This has seen Vietnam turning to some rather different vendors. Traditionally, Vietnam has been reliant on Moscow to supply its armaments. This is, of course, a hangover from the historic supply of weapons that first began during the Vietnam War; it has continued since then, as Russia’s plentiful supply of cheap and highly effective weaponry has suited Vietnam’s rather low defence budgets fine. But with the economy improving following structural reforms and China beginning to threaten both its potential revenue streams and energy security in the South China Sea, Vietnam has begun to look away from its traditional contractors in order to supplement its defence requirements and in the hope that buying into non-Russian equipment can provide a key advantage over Chinese armament and help deter further bullying.
In order to supplement its maritime capability, Vietnam has recently procured six Metal Shark patrol boats and, more significantly, a Hamilton-class cutter from an unlikely source; the US. These craft represent a significant improvement in Vietnam’s littoral arsenal and their transfer straight into the Vietnamese Coast Guard, rather than the Navy, shows that Vietnam is looking to buy specific craft in order to fill a specific need. This renewed engagement with the US is designed to allow Vietnam to improve response times and capability in and around its territorial waters; civilian and military clashes are now very much a real danger and with four Vietnamese fishermen shot dead by the Indonesian Navy this week, the need is clear — hence rumours of yet further purchases from the US.
This buying abroad has been supplemented, however, by a continuation of purchases from Moscow. Vietnam recently placed a huge order with the country’s defence sector, purchasing 64 T-90 Main Battle Tanks. This is the first large order the Army has made in some time, but simply bridges the gap to the armour deployed by China — most of the Army’s armour beforehand were Cold War legacy vehicles — the threat of obsolescence remains present, however, and artillery continues to be a weak point; the Army is regarded as the weakest link in Vietnam’s security chain. The Asian nation is also poised to procure four S-400 Triumf Surface-to-Air missiles and new fighter jets, likely MIG-35s, to replace their now-retired MiG-21s, according to reports. As well as looking to Moscow to improve it’s air strength, Hanoi recently took delivery of the final two ships of six Russian Kilo-class submarines ordered in 2009. China is known to be concerned about these craft, which are among the most effective weapons Vietnam can deploy.
Should Vietnam wish, it can use its position of studied neutrality to modernize its armed forces as far as it can. Playing on the possibility of increased US co-operation and support to fill specific capability gaps, and balancing this with the cost-effectiveness of Russian supplied equipment, Hanoi could see a rapid improvement in its capability — blowing past its significant budgetary restraints.