Vietnam’s new white paper cautions PRC, encourages U.S., analysts say

Vietnam’s new white paper cautions PRC, encourages U.S., analysts say

Top Stories | Jan 26, 2020:


Vietnam warned the People’s Republic of China (PRC) about continuing its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea in releasing its first defense white paper in a decade in November 2019, according to analysts.

The paper also presented opportunities for the United States to build on its relationship with Vietnam, analysts said.

“The latest defense white paper represents Hanoi’s clearest warning yet to China — Vietnam’s near-exclusive security threat and one it perpetually attempts to both engage and balance against on multiple fronts — that Vietnam might have to strengthen defense ties with the United States if Beijing’s bad behavior persists in the South China Sea,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp., and U.S. Navy Capt. Christopher Sharman, a national security affairs fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution, wrote in late December 2019 post in War on the Rocks, an online platform for analysis, commentary, debate and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues.

“That is a message with significant implications for Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy to keep the region ‘free and open’ from coercion,” they wrote.

The white paper, issued by Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence, outlines the nation’s commitment to self-sufficiency and to its “three no” policy, which was emphasized in earlier white papers in 1998, 2004 and 2009, Vietnam’s Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh said in a statement.

Vietnam has pledged for decades that it will not join military alliances with another country, will not align with one country against another and will not allow foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil, according to Jane’s Defence Industry. The new 2019 white paper also added a “fourth no”: Vietnam will not use force or threaten to use force in international relations, Vinh said in the statement.

Vietnam has generated one of Southeast Asia’s more capable militaries. It continues to spend about 2.36% of its gross domestic product on military expenditures and remains one of the world’s largest arms importers, according to The Diplomat, an online magazine.

The 2019 white paper identifies “building and enhancing weapons and equipment” and maintaining a defense budget that is “in line with the country’s economic development” as priorities, Vinh told Vietnam’s state-run media.

Analysts assert that Vietnam’s “three nos” are fungible, however.

“Vietnam is sticking to nonreliance but emphasizes an important caveat: Any form of defense is acceptable with the nation under attack,” Dr. Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, wrote in a December 6, 2019, analysis in Foreign Policy magazine.

“If Hanoi sees a benefit in a particular defense exchange, it will find a way to make the engagement fit within the Three Nos policy or keep the activity relatively quiet. Balancing against China in the South China Sea would appear to offer the United States and other like-minded states fairly wide latitude,” Grossman and Dung Huynh, an assistant policy researcher at Rand, wrote in a January 19, 2019, article in The Diplomat. (Pictured: Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh, left front, and Japanese Ambassador to Vietnam Umeda Kunio, right, finish signing an agreement in Hanoi on January 6, 2019, for Japan to supply dioxin analyzing equipment to Vietnam).

In particular, the white paper declares that Vietnam “is willing to welcome vessels of navies, coast guards, border guards and international organisations to make courtesy or ordinary port visits or stop over in its ports to repair, replenish logistics and technical supplies or take refuges from national disasters,” according to Foreign Policy.

In her article, Huong interprets this as “a direct rejection of some of the propositions that suggest limiting regional actors’ joint activities with external powers—something that China suggested be included in a dispute management mechanism between the Chinese and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that is currently under negotiation, the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”

“Going forward, expect Vietnam to more liberally enforce the Three Nos, especially if China steps up patrols, conducts further land reclamation and militarization of disputed features, announce an air defense identification zone, or more aggressively competes for access to natural resources and fisheries. Regardless, Vietnam will be more inclined to accept defense engagements that can plausibly be explained publicly as defensive rather than offensive in nature,” Grossman and Huynh wrote.

Vietnam, with its new focus on multilateral defense cooperation, may be empowered to participate more fully with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forums, promote regional security and in general military exercises, Grossman and Sharman suggest in their War on the Rocks essay.

In fact, Hanoi’s inclusion of Vietnam’s participation in ASEAN multilateral military activities in an annex to the white paper may indicate they are a priority for Hanoi, they wrote. The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the ASEAN Regional Forum may prove ideal venues for the U.S. to strengthen collaboration with Vietnam and other ASEAN members to advance both U.S.’s and Vietnam’s interests, Grossman and Sharman suggest.

Other forms of multilateral activities such as joint exercises, however, “may be out of the reach for the foreseeable future, but not impossible if Beijing’s bad behavior continues,” Grossman and Hunyh wrote in The Diplomat.