Can Vietnam's Military Stand Up to China in the South China Sea?

Published in: Asia Policy, Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2018), Pages 113-134. doi:10.1353/asp.2018.0010

Posted on RAND.org on February 22, 2018

by Derek Grossman

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Vietnam's military modernization is increasingly focused on deterring China from seizing disputed territory in the South China Sea. By developing and fielding select capabilities — including Kilo-class submarines, Su-30MK2 maritime strike fighters, a network of anti-access missiles, and other weapon systems — Hanoi has likely achieved its core objective of convincing Beijing of the hardships it would face in a military conflict against Vietnam in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, if deterrence fails because Beijing believes it can mitigate the substantial but reasonable risks, then Vietnam is probably incapable of sustaining an extended, large-scale, or high-intensity conventional conflict in the region. This conclusion is supported by an analysis of its evolving warfighting doctrine in the air and sea domains, lack of jointness and unrealistic training activities, and shortcomings in the Vietnamese military's maritime domain awareness capabilities and weapon systems interoperability.

Key Findings

  • U.S. policymakers should seek specific areas of cooperation and collaboration with Vietnam in the defense and military spheres that would enhance Hanoi’s warfighting capabilities. For example, the U.S. could pursue closer collaboration on coastal radar, satellite and other communications systems, maritime surveillance aircraft (including unarmed drones), and naval patrol craft.
  • A dramatically reduced role for Washington in the Asia-Pacific would greatly increase the prospects of China employing bullying tactics against Vietnam. Hanoi could respond by accelerating and expanding its own military modernization efforts. Yet it is equally plausible that Hanoi would instead simply seek ways to accommodate Chinese demands, calculating that an arms race would be destabilizing and unwinnable. Neither scenario is in the strategic interests of the U.S. or Vietnam.
  • Through sustained U.S. leadership in the region, the U.S. and Vietnam should deepen their burgeoning defense partnership to ensure that Hanoi stands a better chance in a significant military confrontation with China.

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