Vietnam ready for combat as tension with China soars

Diplomacy first but we must be ready for the worst, says Viet official

The Vietnam Navy's Russian-made submarines on display at Cam Ranh military port in May. Vietnam has also recently upgraded and expanded its air defences.
The Vietnam Navy's Russian-made submarines on display at Cam Ranh military port in May. Vietnam has also recently upgraded and expanded its air defences.PHOTO: REUTERS

XUAN MAI • Vietnam's military is steeling itself for conflict with China as it accelerates a decade-long modernisation drive, Hanoi's biggest arms build-up since the height of the Vietnam War.

The ruling Communist Party's goal is to deter its giant northern neighbour as tensions rise over the disputed South China Sea, and if that fails, to be able to defend itself on all fronts, senior officers and people close to them told Reuters.

Vietnam's strategy has moved beyond contingency planning.

Key units have been placed on "high combat readiness", including its elite Division 308, which guards the mountainous north.

The two countries fought a bloody border war in 1979. The likely flashpoint this time is in the South China Sea, where they have rival claims in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

Meanwhile, Australia yesterday said it will not bow to Chinese pressure to halt surveillance flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea, Defence Minister Marise Payne said. The Australian Defence Department said on Tuesday one of its aircraft flew on "a routine maritime patrol" over the South China Sea from Nov 25 to Dec 4.

On the Vietnamese military strategy, one senior Vietnamese government official told Reuters: "We don't want to have a conflict with China and we must put faith in our policy of diplomacy. But we know we must be ready for the worst."

Most significantly, Hanoi is creating a naval deterrent largely from scratch with the purchase of six advanced Kilo-class submarines from Russia. In recent months, the first of those submarines have started patrolling the South China Sea, Vietnamese and foreign military officials said, the first confirmation the vessels have been in the strategic waterway.

Militarily, the tensions are palpable north-west of Hanoi at the headquarters of Division 308, Vietnam's most elite military unit, where senior army officers talk repeatedly about "high combat readiness".

The 308 is Vietnam's oldest division and still effectively guards the northern approaches to Hanoi.

There are references to the "new situation" in lectures by senior officers during visits to military bases and in publications of the People's Army of Vietnam.

"When Vietnam refers to the 'new situation', they are using coded language to refer to the rising likelihood of an armed confrontation or clash with China, particularly in the South China Sea," said Professor Carl Thayer of Australia's Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

While ramping up combat readiness, Hanoi's generals are reaching out to a broad range of strategic partners. Russia and India are the main sources of advanced weapons, training and intelligence cooperation. Hanoi is also building ties with the United States and its Japanese, Australian and Filipino allies, as well as Europe and Israel.

Vietnam is seeking more Russian jet fighter-bombers and is in talks with European and US arms manufacturers to buy fighter and maritime patrol planes and unarmed surveillance drones, sources have said.

It has also recently upgraded and expanded its air defences, including obtaining early warning surveillance radars from Israel and advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries from Russia.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Vietnam ready for combat as tension with China soars'. Subscribe