U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, center, and Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich review an honor guard in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 20, 2019.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, center, and Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich review an honor guard in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 20, 2019.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Vietnam indicates in a recent defense white paper it will pursue stronger military ties abroad as China challenges its maritime sovereignty claims, and analysts expect that to mean more exercises with Western-leaning foreign powers and brisker purchases of foreign weapons.

The Southeast Asian country will “promote defense cooperation” abroad to handle mutual security challenges, the Ministry of National Defense paper released in November says.

As conditions are right, the English-language paper says, “Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries … for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community.”

ASEAN defense ministers and dialogue nations defenses ministers, Russia's deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, Singapore's Ng Eng Hen, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi in Bangkok, Nov. 18, 2019.

The document stresses more defense cooperation among 10 Southeast Asian nations and calls settling differences with China a “long-term, difficult and complex process involving multiple countries and parties.” The two Asian neighbors, which have centuries of border disputes, now contest sovereignty over tracts of the South China Sea.

The paper should signal more procurement of advanced weapons from countries such as Russia and joining more multinational defense exercises, analysts believe. One such event was the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc’s first maritime exercises with China’s chief rival, the United States, in September.

“If we read between the lines, we can see the Vietnamese hinting at the possibility that they may deepen cooperation with other powers, but how far they can go they don’t say specifically in the paper,” said Nguyen Thanh Trung, Center for International Studies director at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam and China

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest all or parts of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea. They value the waterway, which stretches from Taiwan west to Singapore, for its fisheries and energy reserves.

China has taken a military and technological lead during the past decade by using landfill to build out small islets under its control. Some now support hangars and airstrips.

Chinese maritime activity angers Vietnam especially because China controls the Paracel Islands, a 130-islet archipelago claimed by both sides. The two sides faced off in deadly sea battles in the 1970s and 1980s, fanning Vietnamese resentment, already strong from a two-war land border dispute.

A Chinese energy survey ship sparked a standoff with Vietnam last year as it patrolled near an oil and gas block on the Vietnamese continental shelf, also within China’s maritime claim.

The white paper dovetails with a 2018 Communist Party Central Committee resolution calling for becoming what domestic media outlet VnExpress International calls “a powerful maritime nation.”

More joint exercises

The paper, the first since 2009, follows from Vietnam's gradual accumulation of 28 partnerships with foreign countries, some with a military dimension. India and Vietnam signed a deal in 2018 to step up defense cooperation, and Vietnamese military personnel already train at Australian defense institutions.

The paper’s wording implies that Vietnamese officials feel confident they can join any future U.S. military exercises with ASEAN, Nguyen said.  

Vietnam will not engage one country to strike another, the white paper says, a pledge that precludes any treaty alliances, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Foreign military bases are also considered unlikely.

The white paper doesn’t rule out a tighter defense relationship with Washington, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“You might want to read it as a very nuanced way of ‘you push us too far, we’ll go closer to the U.S.’ but it’s not that explicit in there,” Thayer said, although when U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Vietnam in November, he talked up what the U.S. Embassy called a “defense partnership.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 20, 2019.

Arms sales

Foreign defense cooperation may augur more deals to buy arms from Russia, India and eventually the United States, analysts believe.

In 2018 the country signed a deal to order more than $1 billion from its long-time submarine and aircraft supplier Russia. Two years earlier, India extended $500 million in credit for any military purchases. China, also a political rival of India, protested that idea.

Trump administration officials have explored selling weapons to Vietnam. In 2018 the U.S. State Department indicated it wanted to Vietnam to buy more weapons from the United States despite price tags that the country might find hard to pay, military news outlet DefensenNews reported.   Four years ago Washington lifted an embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam, ending a remnant from U.S. Vietnam War.

The white paper doesn’t mention specific defense expenditures, nor does it bore down into details of Vietnam’s disputes with China or name the fellow communist government as a target.“

I think in a way this white paper is trying to strike a balance between the need to send a signal and yet at the same time trying not to appear too provocative toward certain parties,” Koh said.