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

By Minh Nga   October 8, 2018 | 07:42 pm PT
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. Photo courtesy of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force
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 to VnExpress International, 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.

"These visits are signs of engagement with a much broader, more diverse community of like-minded states on maritime security issues," he said.

The frequent port visits showed that Vietnam is "more comfortable and more willing" to engage in friendly relations with such countries, and that it shares some things in common with them at some level in maritime policy, security and politics, 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

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.

Asked about the impacts of the recent Vietnam port calls, mostly made by U.S. allies, Lean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the activities “would be more accurately termed as presence operations and not necessarily in direct challenge to Chinese claims in the sea."

He said the operations are obviously meant to underline the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, thus they at least carry value in terms of showing the flag, and demonstrate international concern about preserving freedom in the waterway.

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 that they will not accept China's assertiveness when it goes beyond limits defined by 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 called the visits "an irritant" to China as they speak of a refusal to acknowledge China’s claims over the area.

China claims much of the area through its controversial nine-dash line, which overlaps sovereign Vietnam territory and maritime areas claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

“There seems to be a consensus emerging that China’s actions require a concerted and collective response," Blaxland said. "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."

Carl Thayer, an Australia-based long-time analyst of regional security, said that major powers want to show that they can contribute to regional security. Some U.S. allies may want to assuage President Trump who views them as "free riders."

"Canada, Japan and South Korea are demonstrating that they too can bring something to the alliance table," he said.

The position of Vietnam

Thayer took Cam Ranh Bay as an example showing that Vietnam is more willing and more capable of playing a part in maintaining regional maritime security.

"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, 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."

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.

"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," Batongbacal said.

He said enhancing these relationships will allow countries to operate more closely and often in the sea, leading to further cooepration such as information exchange, exercises or joint operations, to protect their interests and at the same time help Vietnam protect its own interests.

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.

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