Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Vietnam's dual-track defence strategy

The Straits Times Singapore
September 26, 2011 Monday

Robert Karniol, Defence Writer

AIMING to strengthen its security posture as a hedge against China's growing might - and, at the same time, nurture its global position - Vietnam is relentlessly rebuilding its armed forces while making a parallel effort to expand strategic ties.
Hanoi's defence diplomacy most recently produced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on defence cooperation with the United States, the tangible outcome of a bilateral defence policy dialogue held in Washington on Sept 19. The inaugural meeting a year earlier in Vietnam's capital largely focused on familiarisation.
'The MOU between Vietnam and the US provides a framework for bilateral cooperation in overcoming the war consequences, conducting research and training activities, ensuring maritime security, exchanging experiences and information as well as maintaining peace in the region,' Vietnam's deputy defence minister, Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, said in a radio interview with the Voice of Vietnam.
The agreement establishes a senior-level dialogue mechanism between Vietnam's Defence Ministry and the US Department of Defence to address issues relating to maritime security, search and rescue operations, United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian aid/disaster relief. At the same time, Washington pledged its support for mine clearance operations in Vietnam while Hanoi undertook to further aid America's search for its military personnel gone missing in combat during the Vietnam War.
A separate initiative led by Vietnam's Foreign Ministry and the US State Department recently saw the two countries conduct their fourth bilateral Political, Security and Defence Dialogue. This process includes talks on potential US Navy access to Vietnam's port at Cam Ranh Bay.
Yet Washington still restricts military sales to Vietnam - a constraint that is currently the subject of bilateral discussion.
However, General Vinh pointed out in his radio interview that such arrangements with the US are hardly unique. 'Regarding defence cooperation,' he said, 'Vietnam has signed a number of MOUs with other nations such as India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Cuba and some Asean countries.'
Separate reports note that Singapore is also a defence dialogue partner, while recently concluded defence industrial cooperation agreements include Germany, Israel, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom. New bilateral defence dialogues involving Japan and South Korea could soon be launched.
Gen Vinh had just a few weeks earlier led a delegation to Beijing for a second defence and security dialogue. The People's Liberation Army team was led by Lieutenant-General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff. Beyond the platitudes produced during the Aug 28 meeting, the two sides agreed to promote senior-level military exchanges, the establishing of a defence hotline and the expansion of joint training activity.
A Voice of Vietnam report did not shy away from controversy. 'Hostile forces have made two allegations: firstly, that Vietnam has to rely on the US to fight against China and, secondly, that Vietnam conceded its territory to China,' it stated.
Gen Vinh is quoted as commenting: 'We should make it clear to people of both nations that they should learn more about the facts and that, although there are still shortcomings in the Vietnam-China relationship, the two parties and states have committed to dealing with the issue through peaceful solutions in accordance with international law.'
Perhaps it is just in case, then, that Hanoi's outdated armed forces are being modernised on a significant scale.
Vietnam's force modernisation has so far included Kilo-class submarines, Sukhoi Su-30MKK fighters and DHC-6 Series 400 amphibious aircraft for maritime patrol. The Extra short-range ballistic missile has been obtained from Israel and last month, a second Gepard-class warship was delivered by Russia.
Two new deals with the Czech Republic have yet to be made public. Within the past year, the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) got three sophisticated Vera passive radiolocators after Washington reversed itself on an earlier demand that Prague block the sale, and within the past few months, the Czechs upgraded from analogue to digital a number of Vietnam's Russian-made P-18 radars.
The Vera system replaces three Ukrainian-made Kolchuga passive sensor systems Vietnam had on option after buying an initial three, whose performance may have proven disappointing.
Talks are now under way, aimed at acquiring from the Czech Republic 12 Let L-410 short-range transport aircraft, which would mainly be used to resupply Vietnamese-held positions in the Spratly archipelago.
Hanoi began considering force development in the early 1990s, not long after its 1989 military withdrawal from Cambodia. This produced a new defence posture characterised by lessened dependence on a large standing ground force together with enhancement of the navy and air force.
Years of neglect had taken a heavy toll on the VPA's largely obsolete inventory, and much of the force modernisation push represents a renewal. But then there's China to consider.

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