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Vietnam more willing to boost security ties with major powers: experts

Vietnamese frigate Tran Hung Dao arrives at Sakai Port in Osaka on October 3 during its trip to Japan.
Vietnamese frigate Tran Hung Dao arrives at Sakai Port in Osaka on October 3 during its trip to Japan.

A number of foreign naval ships have visited Vietnam recently, and analysts say the nation is keen to promote defense diplomacy.
Between September 11 and 27 South Korean destroyer Munmu the Great berthed in Da Nang, Japanese submarine Kuroshio in Cam Ranh, Canada’s HMCS Calgary again in Da Nang, and New Zealand frigate Te Mana and Indian destroyer INS Rana in Ho Chi Minh City.

In early September, British amphibious assault vessel HMS Albion visited HCMC after sailing past the Paracel Islands, sparking fury in China.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese frigate Tran Hung Dao late last month headed out for a long naval journey involving maritime activities in Japan, South Korea and China, and Coast Guard ship CBS 8001 began a maiden visit to India last week, seeking to strengthen cooperation in addressing maritime security threats.

In an email, Dr. Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said these visits are definitely an indicator of Vietnam’s growing willingness to boost security ties with major powers, including those within the U.S. alliance and partnership network.

“It’s important to note that with a more extroverted military growing its capabilities for outreach, Vietnam is keen to promote defense diplomacy.”

These visits, including foreign warships’ port calls to Vietnam and Vietnam’s visits, represent more broadly the intensified defense diplomacy efforts between Vietnam and external parties in recent years, he said.

Jay Batongbacal, associate professor at the University of the Philippines’ College of Law, concurred.

He said via email: “These visits are signs of engagement with a much broader, more diverse community of like-minded states on maritime security issues.

“By inviting or allowing more frequent port visits by more navies, Vietnam is cultivating friendly relations with all the participating navies’ home states. It shows that Vietnam is more comfortable and more willing to engage in friendly relations with such countries, and signals that at some level in maritime policy, security and politics, Vietnam shares some things in common with those states,” he said.

John Blaxland of the Australian National University, professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies, director of Southeast Asia Institute and head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU, said: “There is a cautious opening up to boosting security ties with a number of countries.

“Vietnam knows that it cannot realistically expect to rely on many of them in a crisis, but the leverage gained in dealing with its giant neighbor generates at least short-term advantages for the government as it considers its options in the face of ongoing Chinese pressure.”

Collective response

Asked about the impacts of these port visits, mostly made by U.S. allies, in the context that the U.S. navy has conducted so-called freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea, and said it would like to see more countries challenging China in the waterway, Lean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said activities carried out by like-minded U.S. allies and partners “would be more accurately termed as presence operations and not necessarily in direct challenge to Chinese claims in the sea.

“They are meant of course to underline the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight. So, even if these activities are not strictly speaking freedom of navigation operations conducted by the U.S. Navy, they also carry value in terms of showing the flag, and hence demonstrates that there’s international concern about preserving those freedoms in the sea.”

But other analysts said the port calls mean more than that.

Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law said operations by other U.S. allies or by like-minded states would “signal clearly to China that they will never accept China’s ongoing attempt to make the South China Sea its own exclusive maritime domain, or at least an area where it has primary or priority rights that it can exercise to exclude or control others’ activities outside of its own territorial sea or jurisdictional waters as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

“These efforts will prevent China from ever claiming any legally-binding acknowledgement or acquiescence by any other state. China can never legitimize any of its claims that go beyond what is permitted by UNCLOS.”

Blaxland of the Australian National University said the visits “are an irritant to China and that they speak of a refusal to acknowledge China’s claims over the area de-limited by the so-called nine dash line.”

China has been using the nine dash line to illegally claim sovereign Vietnamese territory in the East Sea.

“There seems to be a consensus emerging that China’s actions require a concerted and collective response. The visits are in one sense a mark of solidarity with Vietnam and a signal to China that its unilateral assertiveness in the South China Sea is not being accepted without challenge,” he said.

Carl Thayer, an Australia-based long-time analyst of regional security, said: “Japan, South Korea and Canada are all treaty allies of the U.S., and it is clear that these allies must do more to contribute to regional security to assuage President Trump who views many allies as “free riders.”

“This means they depend on the U.S. to provide security while playing a minimal role. These days are over. Canada, Japan and South Korea are demonstrating that they too can bring something to the alliance table. But these countries have their own national interests in keeping the sea lines of communication from being dominated by any single country.”

The position of Vietnam

As analysts observed, the fact that Vietnam is attractive to foreign naval ships is partly because of its key role in maintaining order and protecting the interests of related parties in the region.

Batongbacal said: “Vietnam’s openness to diversified maritime security relationships can be a very important and strategic role given its location as a littoral state in the South China Sea. Enhancing these relationships allow states further away from or outside of the region to operate more closely, frequently or longer in the sea to protect their interests and at the same time they help Vietnam protect its own similar interests in the freedoms of the seas.

“Countries initiating naval visits could expect that Vietnam eventually would see the value of enhancing its relations even beyond port visits and consider perhaps even more active maritime cooperation (e.g., information exchange, exercises, joint operations) in the near future.”

Thayer said: “Cam Ranh Bay is a strategic harbor because of its location facing the South China Sea and because it is naturally protected from bad weather. Vietnam built Cam Ranh International Port (CRIP), a commercial port, to make facilities available for transiting navies. It is in Vietnam’s interest to have foreign naval powers pass through the South China Sea as long as they contribute to regional peace and security.

“Several years ago ships and a submarine from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force visited the Philippines and then Cam Ranh International Port. The submarine did not enter CRIP at that time. This year the visit by a Japanese submarine demonstrates that Vietnam has been more accommodating to foreign navies. The Japanese submarine is an important demonstration of naval power and adds risk and uncertainty to China’s military posture in the South China Sea.”

Blaxland said the participating countries are hoping to bolster Vietnam’s resolve and looking for opportunities to establish and build relationships for a range of crisis scenarios that could arise.