Can growing ties help Vietnam deal with its South China Sea disputes?
The visit by Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, to Japan last month marked yet another milestone in an increasingly close strategic partnership. On this occasion, Japan and Vietnam issued a Joint Vision Statement on Japan-Vietnam Relations as well as a Memorandum on Cooperation between Coast Guard Agencies. Tokyo also inked an agreement to furnish Hanoi with a 200 billion yen ($1.66 billion) non-refundable aid grant for the latter’s maritime safety in fiscal 2015, while promising to provide additional used patrol vessels to enhance Vietnam’s civilian maritime law enforcement (CMLE) capacity.
What is interesting is that the visit came fewer than three months after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, where he reiterated Hanoi’s desire to ramp up the bilateral maritime security relationship, including the prospect of acquiring new patrol vessels from Japan as well as seeking the latter’s continued support in the South China Sea disputes. Indeed, in view of the simmering tensions in the South China Sea, obtaining timely Japanese assistance has acquired a new sense of urgency. High-ranking Vietnamese government officials have repeatedly impressed upon their Japanese counterparts this year the need to expedite or even enhance assistance. For example, in March, on the sidelines of the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Thi Doan and Kishida agreed to bolster maritime security cooperation.
Vietnam’s Grim Maritime Outlook
The geopolitical backdrop to this spate of intensified engagement between Hanoi and Tokyo is of course the South China Sea, and has been since 2010 when tensions resurged amongst the claimant states. In more recent years, Hanoi has faced intensified friction with Beijing over the disputed waters. The Sino-Vietnamese standoff over the Chinese oil rig HYSY-981 in waters off the Paracel Islands – to which China and Vietnam both lay claim – in May 2014 shifted Hanoi’s attention to waters close to its coastline. That particular standoff lasted more than two months, and involved ramming and water-cannoning one another’s fishing and government vessels. Fortuitously, this did not lead to a repeat of the bloody skirmishes that took place in 1974 and 1988.
Nonetheless, the May 2014 standoff was an excruciating one for both disputants. Both sides, exhausted by the sustained, grueling face-off, gradually de-escalated tensions, culminating with the eventual withdrawal of the incriminating oil rig from the scene. But the experience showed that both countries’ CMLE agencies can be severely over-stretched by a prolonged standoff. The Chinese, notwithstanding their consistent denials, had deployed regular naval vessels to the scene. The Vietnamese had persisted with vessels from the Coast Guard and Fisheries Resource Surveillance Force. However, the material and manpower preponderance clearly favors China, given its vast size and resources. As such, the standoff is a harbinger of sorts for what the future might hold for Hanoi, and it is a worrying one. This is especially so since Vietnamese fishermen have this year been allegedly harassed or attacked by Chinese forces. Hanoi protested the Chinese State Council’s recently adopted plan to establish national maritime zones in the South China Sea, which includes both the Paracel and Spratly Islands. This came after a protest against Beijing’s new tourism route from Sanya on Hainan Island to the Paracels in early September.
Moreover, the pesky HYSY-981 oil rig reappeared off Vietnamese coast in January 2015, when it moved under Chinese armed escort near the Paracels en route to the Indian Ocean. Five months later, the same oil rig wasreportedly moved into overlapping waters to carry out, in Beijing’s words, “ocean drilling operations” some 75 nm south of Sanya on Hainan Island. This activity came after a Chinese seismic survey vessel Number 517reportedly came within 20 nm of Phy Quy Island off the central Vietnamese province of Binh Thuan and 40 nm off the mainland Vietnamese coast – a move Hanoi deemed as a violation of its sovereignty. All the while, Vietnamese CMLE forces maintained a watchful eye on Chinese activities. The troubling situation is only compounded by the spate of Chinese land reclamation and infrastructural development activities in the region. Vietnamese CMLE forces look set to become overstretched with problems arising in waters around the nearby Paracels as well as more distant waters around the Spratlys.
A Race Hanoi Can’t Win?
Suffice to note, future Sino-Vietnamese standoffs may still largely involve CMLE agencies as the preferred frontline units. For Vietnam – the smaller, weaker party – it is imperative to seek to maintain the moral high ground in the dispute. This includes not just desisting from the use of force, but also refraining from mobilizing its regular naval units. Not that the Vietnam People’s Navy has the luxury of vessels to spare anyway, despite its recent noteworthy modernization efforts. Ultimately, the choice is stark for Vietnam: The sole recourse for limited gunboat diplomacy, just to demonstrate resolve in a future maritime standoff with China, has to be CMLE forces. However, even here operationally and technically Vietnam finds itself facing a more powerful China; it simply is unable to match the speed at which Beijing is building its China Coast Guard (CCG) capacity.
For one thing, China has a colossal and vastly more developed shipbuilding industry that already produces a diverse range of military and CMLE vessels for domestic use. The recent introduction of a 12,000-ton CCG patrol vessel – built to military standards and ostensibly designed to supersede the 6000-ton Japanese Shikishima class – is testament to how far China’s CCG capacity-building efforts have come. The CCG is still inducting converted, hand-me-down vessels from the PLA Navy but increasingly its stable is populated with new-build designs. Following modern practice of maximizing commonalities across services, the Chinese have also derived their most recent new-builds from the existing serial-production PLA Navy Type-056 Jiangdao class corvette design, with basically the same hull and some superstructure similarities, but painted in CCG colors and equipped “light” for maritime law enforcement duties (just water- and auto-cannons and no heavy offensive armaments).
By contrast, the Vietnamese have been relying largely on foreign sources for its CMLE agencies, while simultaneously attempting to build up its domestic shipbuilding capacity. A robust relationship has been established with Dutch shipbuilding firm Damen, which has been the source of the Vietnamese CMLE agencies’ latest new-builds, such as the DN2000 offshore patrol vessel. Local shipyards, such as Song Thu, have been building the Dutch-designed vessels under license. However, the pace is much slower than that of China. Moreover, cost is not on Vietnam’s side. The Chinese can tap cheaper domestic sources of labor and raw materials, while Hanoi has to rely more heavily on foreign components. One may argue that Vietnamese new-builds ought to be of superior quality, given that they benefit from Western technology. But this comes at a huge premium – one that Vietnam cannot possibly sustain if it hopes to build more to match, if not exceed, the forces that the CCG can muster.
Japan as an Alternative Source
Surely diversifying sources would help, though it may present Hanoi with a logistical nightmare. Still, it is the obvious direction if the long-term plan is for Vietnam to attain self-sufficiency in building its CMLE capabilities. For a start, the Vietnamese have established nascent links with the United States. But what Washington had offered so far may fall short of Hanoi’s CMLE requirements. The Defiant 75-type patrol craft, to be built under an $18-million grant inked in June, is optimized for coastal patrol but not for policing an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), let alone distant waters in the Spratlys. The deal is also more politically than operationally significant, since it heralds the beginning of closer Vietnam-U.S. relations, including the partial lifting of arms embargo on Hanoi. Washington’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative may hold promise for better assets that suit Vietnam’s CMLE needs. But this remains to be seen. Moreover, Hanoi may bump into the same cost conundrum.
If Vietnam desires to hasten its capacity-building process and not let the CMLE asymmetry with China widen further, it must seek more cost-effective alternatives. Japan is a promising candidate, especially given the confluence of common strategic interests shared by the two countries: the desire to play a proactive role in peace, safety and prosperity in Asia and the international community, uphold freedom and safety of navigation and overflight, and enhance the rule of law at sea. Burgeoning maritime safety and security links between Vietnam and Japan date back to as early as 2000, when in May that year Hanoi and Tokyo agreed on bilateral maritime search-and-rescue cooperation and joint operations in the South China Sea. The two countries agreed to enhance this relationship in January 2012 during a visit to Hanoi by then Japanese Vice-Defense Minister Shimojo Mitsu.
Japan under Abe seeks to reinvigorate its influence in Southeast Asia in an apparent countervailing move against China’s growing assertiveness in the East China Sea. In recent years, Japan’s maritime security engagements with the region have mostly revolved around the Philippines and Vietnam – which share common frustrations over Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea. Greater the direct involvement of Japan’s military and Coast Guard in the area will remain to be seen following passage of its new security legislation in mid-September. Japan’s Self Defense Force (SDF) authorities have professed a lack of capacity to maintain the proposed regular military aerial presence over the South China Sea. “It may be possible for our airplanes to just shuttle between Naha and the South China Sea, but it would be difficult for them to stay in the area long enough to conduct surveillance activities,” a senior SDF official remarked in late July this year, notwithstanding the stopover in Vietnam’s central province of Da Nang by Japanese P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft two months earlier. As such, Tokyo’s primary approach will remain limited to mainly technical and financial assistance towards its Southeast Asian partners’ maritime security capacity-building efforts.
Too Much on Japan’s Plate?
In fact, Vietnam has been tapping these avenues since July 2012, when Tokyo responded positively to Hanoi’s request for assistance to build CMLE capacity. The relationship burgeoned a year later when Tokyo reiterated its commitment to this cause, most significant of all being Abe’s professed interest in supplying patrol vessels to Vietnam. Two months before the oil rig standoff, Japan and Vietnam elevated bilateral relations to Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia, on which occasion a bilateral pact was reached for Tokyo to dispatch a research team to Vietnam as a first step towards providing the patrol vessels.
However, in late May 2014, Abe admitted at a National Diet session that Tokyo was unable to immediately supply used patrol vessels to Vietnam, because the surveillance burden on the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) was increasing, remarking that “regrettably, our country is not in a situation where we can retire all vessels that have reached such age.” But soon after, Vietnamese Vice-Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh told the press on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore that Hanoi expects the delivery of patrol vessels from Japan in early 2015.
When Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited Vietnam at the end of July 2014, he agreed to provide Vietnam with six second-hand vessels (all displacing 600-800 tons; two from the Fisheries Agency and four commercial fishing vessels) modified for patrol tasks, along with associated equipment such as lifeboats – altogether totaling 500 million yen. The ships were slated for delivery by the end of 2014, but the first modified patrol vessel was not delivered until early August 2015. By September 2015, two of the vessels had been handed over to Vietnam. These are not new-builds, but the time taken for their transfer and modification exceeded the envisaged timeline. This aid can be seen as a stop-gap measure, but one that showed how stretched the Japanese are in providing assets to foreign countries when they themselves are in need of capacity to deal with issues in the East China Sea.
More recently Tokyo announced plans to bolster JCG patrol and surveillance capacity in order to cope with not just the regular CCG forays into territorial waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but also scores of intruding Chinese fishing vessels. Naturally, the JCG’s capacity requirements will have to take precedence. Therefore, it is clear that Japan itself is facing a conundrum not at all different from the one Vietnam faces vis-à-vis China. A consequence is that assistance for Vietnam’s maritime security capacity-building will take time to reach its fullest potential, and will need to wait until Tokyo satisfies its own needs in the face of rapidly expanding CCG capacity. As such, while the maritime security partnership with Japan is certainly important enough to cultivate, it is still prudent for Hanoi to not just further diversify its foreign maritime security partnerships to open more avenues for its CMLE capacity-building needs, but also to devote concerted and sustained efforts to boosting its indigenous shipbuilding capacity.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He can be reached at email@example.com.