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Vietnam’s Defence Policy and its Impact on

Foreign Relations

Professor Carlyle A. Thayer

Inaugural Frances M. and Stephen H. Fuller Distinguished
Visiting Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, Center of
International Studies, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
Paper for EuroViet 6, Asien-Afrika Institut, Universitat Hamburg,
Hamburg, Germany, June 6-8, 2008

Vietnamʼs Defence Diplomacy and Its Impact on Foreign Policy

Carlyle A. Thayer1

1. Introduction
This paper seeks to explore a largely neglected aspect of Vietnam’s
‘multidirectional foreign policy’, defence diplomacy, and its impact on foreign
policy. Foreign policy in Vietnam has always been the preserve of the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs (Bo Ngoai Giao) whose minister generally holds a seat on the
Political Bureau. When this has not been the case, a senior member of the
Political Bureau takes responsibility for foreign policy oversight. In contrast, the
Minister of National Defence (Bo Quoc Phong) has always been a member of the
Political Bureau. Up until about 1992 there was no apparent joint coordinating
mechanism for these two ministries outside of the Political Bureau. In 1992 a
National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) was created which includes
among its members the ministers of foreign affairs, national defence and public
security. It is doubtful that the NDSC performs a strong coordinating role. In
short, Vietnam’s defence diplomacy, while following general guidelines issued
by the Political Bureau and party Central Committee, is largely a product of the
Ministry of National Defence.
Since the end of the Cold War the strategic context for Vietnam’s foreign and
defence policies has changed enormously. Changes first began to emerge in the
mid to late-1980s. At least two major factors influenced this development. The
first factor concerned Vietnam’s domestic circumstances arising from the socio-
economic crisis that confronted Vietnam at that time. The second factor was
external and arose from the ‘new political thinking’ emanating from the Soviet
Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Due to the confluence of
domestic and external influences Vietnam turned from a foreign policy
structured by ideological considerations to a foreign policy framework that
placed greater emphasis on national interest and pragmatic diplomacy.
Vietnamese analysts now stressed global economic forces and the impact of the
revolution in science and technology as key determinants of global order
(Nguyen Manh Cam, 1995:223-230 and Vu Khoan, 1995:71-76). This evolution
took place gradually (Palmujoki: 2004) and the ideological framework of the past
was not jettisoned entirely, residues of the past can still be found today.
In December 1986, at the sixth national congress of Vietnam Communist Party
(VCP), Vietnam adopted the policy of doi moi (renovation). This policy was
mainly concerned with overcoming the domestic economic crisis by the adoption

1Frances M. and Stephen H. Fuller Distinguished Visiting Professor , Center of Southeast Asian
Studies, Ohio University, Paper to EuroViet 6, Asien-Afrika Institut, Universitat Hamburg,
Hamburg, Germany, June 5-7, 2008.

of socio-economic reforms and opening Vietnam to foreign investment. In order

to achieve these objectives Vietnam first had to liquidate the Cambodian
problem. In 1987, the Politburo met and secretly approved Resolution No. 2 that
set out a major strategic readjustment in Vietnam’s defence policy – ‘people’s
war and all-people’s national defence’. Vietnam’s new strategic policy resulted in
the withdrawal of all combat forces from Laos and Cambodia and the massive
demobilization of regulars. The Vietnamese military was promised funding to
support these measures. Vietnam’s major strategic readjustment set the context
for further dramatic changes in foreign policy.
In May 1988, Vietnamese party leaders agreed on a new codification of foreign
policy objectives. This took the form of Politburo Resolution No. 13 which called
for a ‘multi-directional foreign policy’ orientation (Chu Van Chuc 2004:4-7). The
new emphasis was ‘to maintain peace, take advantage of favorable world
conditions’ in order to stabilize the domestic situation and set the base for
economic development over the next ten to fifteen years. This resolution is now
recognized as a major landmark in Vietnam’s external relations. The next
important elaboration of Vietnam’s ‘multi-directional foreign policy’ occurred at
the seventh national party congress in June 1991 (Vu Khoan 1995:75). Policy
documents adopted at this congress declared that Vietnam would ‘diversify and
multilateralise economic relations with all countries and economic
organizations...’ In short, Vietnam now sought ‘to be friends with all countries’.
In September 1989, Vietnam unilaterally withdrew its armed forces from
Cambodia. The Vietnam People’s Army (VPA), which numbered 1.2 million in
1987, was reduced in size with the demobilization of 700,000 troops over the next
five years. In October 1991, Vietnam was a signatory to the comprehensive
political settlement that brought an end to the Cambodian conflict. Vietnam was
no longer an international pariah state subject to an aid and trade boycott. In
sum, the settlement of the Cambodian conflict resulted in the transformation of
regional relations from confrontation between two blocs to cooperation among
the states of Southeast Asia.
In July 1992 Vietnam attended the annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting as an
observer for the first time. Vietnam acceded to the 1976 ASEAN Treaty of Amity
and Cooperation at this meeting. By so doing Vietnam renounced the use of force
or the threat to use force in foreign relations and committed itself to the non-
violent resolution of any conflict that might arise. Two years later, at the 1994
ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok, Vietnam was invited to join ASEAN. It
also became a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at this
time. Vietnam’s application for ASEAN membership was formally approved late
that year and in July 1995 Vietnam became ASEAN’s seventh member.
Since the 1991 seventh party congress, Vietnam succeeded in diversifying its
foreign relations. Seven developments are particularly notable: normalization of
relations with China (November 1991), the restoration of official development
assistance by Japan (November 1992), normalization of relations with the United
States (July 1995), membership in ASEAN (July 1995), the signing of a
Framework Cooperation Agreement with the European Union (July 17, 1995),
membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in January 2007 and non-
permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council (January 2008).

For the first time, Vietnam had diplomatic relations with all five permanent
members of the United Nations Security Council and, equally importantly, with
the world’s three major economic centers: Europe, North America and East Asia.
In 1989, Vietnam had diplomatic relations with only twenty-three non-
communist states. A year after Vietnam joined ASEAN, Vietnam expanded its
external relations to 163 countries.

2. Vietnamʼs Defence Diplomacy, 1991-2004

During the Cold War Vietnam maintained defence relations with a handful of
countries; China, the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact
featured prominently.2 Chinese military assistance fell off after the signing of the
1973 Paris Peace Agreement and was terminated in 1978-79 when the two fell out
over Cambodia. China and Vietnam fought a border war in February-March 1979
and only normalized relations in November 1991. During the Cold War Vietnam
also maintained defence relations and/or contacts with a small number of other
friendly states including Laos, Cuba, India, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, and
Yugoslavia. By 2004, according to Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence,
Vietnam, had established defence relations with more than sixty countries (Quan
Doi Nhan Dan, December 22, 2003). A total of thirty-four defence attaches were
accredited to Vietnam, while Vietnam posted twenty-four defence attaches
abroad (Vietnam News Agency, November 29, 2004).3
For purposes of this paper ‘military diplomacy’ refers to official defence relations
between Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence and its overseas counterparts,
such as the U.S. Department of Defense.4 Military diplomacy is conducted by
means of the exchange of delegations, accrediting of defence attaches, defence
cooperation programs, and equipment and arms sales and servicing agreements.
In the period from January 1990 to December 2006, Vietnam exchanged 364 high-
level defence delegations with forty-two countries.5 For purposes of analysis,
these delegations may be divided into five major categories: ministerial (MND),

2The Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955 and comprised seven members: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia,
East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the USSR . It was officially disbanded in 1991.
3Several of the defence attaches accredited to Vietnam are non-resident. For example, Britain’s
defence representative is permanently based in Kuala Lumpur.
4This paper omits discussion of the exchange of legislative committees that have responsibility
for defence and security matters. For example, Vietnam has received delegations from France’s
National Defence Commission (January 1992), the Military Council of Thailand’s Lower House,
the Russian Federation’s Duma (February 1997), the Lao National Assembly’s National Defence
and Security Committee (April 1999), and the Belgian Parliament’s Defence Committee
(November 2004).
5Based on information received up to and including December 30, 2006. Data was collected from
Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the army newspaper, and Vietnamese radio and press reports included in
the monitoring reports issued by the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service and the British
Broadcasting Corporation; also included are news items found on the websites of the Vietnam
News Agency, Radio Voice of Vietnam and Viet Nam News. This material has been
supplemented by reporting taken from the regional and international media as well as other

Chief of the General Staff or equivalent (CGS), head of the General Political
Department (GPD), head of the General Logistics Department or equivalent
(GLD), and Service Chief (SC) for army, navy and air force (see Chart 1). In
addition to these high-level delegations, in the period 1990-2004 Vietnam hosted
at least thirty-one delegations representing foreign staff colleges and defence
institutes from nine countries.6 Between 1990 and July 2007, Vietnam hosted
fifty-eight separate naval ship visits from sixteen countries.

Of the 364 high-level exchange visits, Vietnam received 207 delegations and sent
157 delegations abroad. When the frequency of high-level exchanges is calculated
(total of delegations received and sent up to the end of 2004), three countries
account for nearly a third of all delegations: Laos (40 exchanges), China (33
exchanges) and Thailand (26 exchanges). The next tier includes: Cambodia (20),
India (16); Philippines and Russia (13 each); and the United States (11); France
Indonesia and Singapore (10 each); Cuba and Japan7 (9 each); Australia (8),

6This data is undoubtedly incomplete due to the generally unpublicized nature of these relatively
low-level visits.
7In October 2006, Vietnam and Japan adopted an ‘Joint Statement Toward a Strategic Partnership
for Peace and Prosperity in Asia,’ during the course of a visit by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan
Dung to Tokyo. The fourth Japan-Vietnam politico-military dialogue was held in Hanoi on
December 13, 2007. Japan was represented by the Deputy Director-General, Southeast and
Southwest Asian Affairs Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Director of the
International Policy Division, Ministry of Defense.

North Korea. South Korea and Malaysia (7 exchanges each); Italy, Myanmar and
Ukraine (6 exchanges each); and Poland and Slovakia (4 exchanges each).
Between 1990-04, Vietnam hosted thirty-four ministerial-level delegations from
16 countries. Toping the list of visitors to Vietnam are the defence ministers from
Laos (7 visits), Thailand (5 visits), and Cambodia (3 visits). Vietnam’s defence
minister made 40 official overseas trips to 29 countries during this same period.
Vietnam’s defence minister most frequently visited Laos (5 visits) and China (4
visits). Prior to Vietnam’s membership in ASEAN, Hanoi hosted visits by
defence ministers from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and the Slovak Republic. At
the same time, Vietnam’s defence minister visited China, Indonesia, North
Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines.
The period after the settlement of the conflict in Cambodia witnessed a major
expansion in ministerial-level contacts. Vietnam resuscitated defence contacts
with former ‘traditional allies’ such as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Bulgaria,
Czech Republic, Poland, the Slovak Republic and the Ukraine. In Northeast Asia
Vietnam exchanged ministerial level delegations with China, Japan, and South
Korea. Most notable has been the exchange of delegations with so-called western
countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy,
Switzerland and the United States. In addition to long-standing relations with
Cuba and India, Vietnam has also developed ministerial level contacts in Africa
(Algeria and South Africa) and Latin America (Brazil).
When the data on high-level exchanges is viewed on a time scale (see Chart 2), it
is evident that the year 1994 marks the real beginning of defence diplomacy. The
general trend since then has been a steady rise in the number of high-level
defence delegations coming to Vietnam with a peaks in 2001 and 2003. There was
a noticeable drop in the exchange of delegations between 1995-2000 perhaps
reflecting Vietnam’s difficult economic conditions, followed by the Asian
financial crisis that resulted in a decline in defence cooperation activities across
the region generally. The number of Vietnamese delegations sent abroad has
mirrored but trailed the generally rising trend of high-level delegations received.
It should be noted that the exchange of delegations representing the General
Political Department (GPD) takes place only among socialist states. The highest
number of exchanges of GPD delegations has been with Laos (44% of the total)
and China (29%).
The category Logistics is a catch-all for a variety of delegations at deputy
ministerial level. This category reflects Vietnamese organizational practice
whereby the head of the General Logistics Department (GLD) is also a deputy
minister of national defence. Foreign delegations that are received by the head of
the VPA General Logistics Department have been placed in this category. The
category Logistics also includes exchanges between the external relations
department (ERD) of defence ministries and other groups such cryptology (Laos)
and military education (Russia).
The fifth category of high-level delegations comprises the service chiefs (army,
navy and air). Once again, it should be noted, defence forces are not structured in
the same way. The United States, for example, has a number of combatant
commanders in charge of geographical areas of responsibility, such as the Pacific

Command (PACOM). The U.S. PACOM Commander (formerly CINCPAC) is

included in the Service Chiefs category as are the commanders of the Russian
and French Pacific fleets. The data indicates a marked imbalance in the number
of reciprocal exchanges. Between 1990 and 2004, Vietnam received forty
delegations in the Service Chiefs category while sending only nine abroad.
The exchange of high-level defence delegations serves a number of purposes
including goodwill, protocol visits for newly appointed officials, strategic
dialogue, and a variety of practical defence cooperation activities between
ministries, armed services and defence industries. This section will review some
of Vietnam ‘s most significant defence cooperation relations starting with the
three countries with whom Vietnam has exchanged the most high-level

Defence Relations with the ASEAN States

Bilateral. Vietnam has conducted relatively intense high-level defence exchanges
with six of ASEAN’s ten members. In addition to Laos and Cambodia, this list
includes Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. Vietnam’s defence
relations with Brunei, Malaysia and Myanmar do not involve substantial defence
The relative intensity of high-level defence exchanges between Thailand and
Vietnam should be noted. The main content of defence relations are protocol
exchange visits, exchanges by staff colleges and defence institutes, and maritime
security.8 However more practical matters were also included. For example, in

8In January 1992, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army, visited Vietnam and offered
to barter spares from Thailand’s stock of Chinese-manufactured T-69 tanks for U.S. F-5 jet parts
which Vietnam captured in 1975 and still held in storage. This offer apparently was not taken up.

January 2007, the Supreme Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, General
Boonsrang Niumpradit, held discussions with the VPA Chief of the General
Staff, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Khac Vien on cooperation in training, sea patrols, search
and rescue of fishermen, sports competition and ‘other issues of common
concern.’ In December 2007, General Anupong Pachinda, Commander in Chief of
the Royal Thai Army visited Hanoi and held discussions with Lt. Gen. Nguyen
Huu Kham, Deputy Chief of the General Staff. The Thai visitor also held
working sessions with ‘organs’ of the Vietam People’s Army.
The intensity of high-level defence contacts between the Philippines and
Vietnam ranks second after Thai-Vietnamese relations. High-level defence visits
since 1994 have generally focused on security issues in the South China Sea and
occasional incidents involving the encroachment by Vietnamese and Filipino
fishermen into maritime waters claimed by the other side.9 As early as April
1994, President Fidel Ramos, while on an official visit to Vietnam, offered to
make available ten places for Vietnamese cadets at the Philippine Military
Academy. He further proposed ‘exchanges of visits by senior military officials,
study tours for officers and defence instructors and joint ventures in
reconditioning of equipment, including aircraft, for re-export’. Little of substance
appears to have taken place. After the visit of President Ramos, Vietnamese
military officials visited Subic Bay to study its conversion to commercial use in
order to draw lessons for the possible commercialization of Cam Ranh Bay.
One of the earliest indications that Vietnam was interested in obtaining technical
assistance in the repair and maintenance of military equipment from outside the
Warsaw Pact came in late 1991 during the visit to Vietnam by Lt. General Teddy
Rusdy, the Assistant Commander in Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces. In
discussions with officials at the VPA’s Defence Industry and Technology General
Department, General Rusdy received a request for technical assistance in the
repair and maintenance of military equipment. Indonesia agreed to conduct a
detailed study of the matter; but there have been no further reports of any action
In 1993 the Indonesian and Vietnamese defence ministers paid reciprocal visits.
General Doan Khue, the Vietamese minister of national defence, showed
particular interest in naval shipbuilding and was taken to Surabaya to observe
first hand. This was an indication that Vietnam was investigating the possibility
of enlisting foreign partners in ship construction in Vietnam. In 1995, a
delegation representing Indonesia’s state aircraft manufacturing corporation
went to Vietnam to explore the possibility of starting operations there. Once
again nothing eventuated from these exploratory contacts.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis and its impact on Indonesia hobbled Indonesia’s
capacity to cooperate with Vietnam in the defence area. There was an apparent
revivial of Indonesian interest in early 2002 when Lt. General Johny Lumintang,
Secretary General of Ministry of Defence and Security held working sessions in
Hanoi with the VPA’s General Logistics Department and General Defence

9In January 1998, Vietnamese troops fired on Filipino fishermen in the vicinity of Tenant Reef.

Industry Department. More recent high-level visits appear of a protocol nature.,

such as the August 2007 visit by the Indonesian Air Force Chief of Staff.
Defence relations between Singapore and Vietnam were initiated in March 1995
with the visit to Singapore by Vietnam’s Defence Minister, General Doan Khue.
The two countries have since exchanged eleven high-level delegations (to August
2005). The pattern indicates interest and possible cooperation between defence
industries. In November 1995, for example, the head of the VPA’s General
Department of Technology, led a ten-member delegation on an visit that
included a tour of local defence industries. Late the following year, Deputy
Prime Minister and Defence Minister Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam visited Vietnam.
After discussions with his Vietnamese counterpart, it was agreed that Vietnam
would send a delegation to Singapore to study its experiences in refurbishing
and upgrading weapons systems (Vietnam News Agency, November 27, 1996).
In March 1999, Lt General Le Van Dung, Chief of the General Staff, paid a visit to
Singapore and called in at the Industrial Technologies Group for a briefing. In
2002 it was reported that Singapore and Vietnam had reached agreement ‘in
principle’ to hold joint naval exercises.
Hanoi reportedly sought Singapore Automotive Engineering’s (now the ST
Kinetics division of ST Engineering) assistance in upgrading its Vietnam War era
M113 APCs. Basic overhaul of 50 M113’s is now under way at a military base in
Ho Chi Minh City. Parts have been obtained through commercial sources and
weapon systems will be installed from captured stocks, with the APCs
eventually due to be deployed with a southern-based armoured division.
In September 2007, Singapore’s Defence Miniser, Teo Chee Hean, visited Hanoi
on an official visit for talks with his counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh.
Press reports indicated that the two ministers exchanged experiences in army
building, counter terrorism, humanitarian assistance and natural disaster relief
and peacekeeping. They agree to continue to exchange delegations. In
November 2007, General Thanh paid a three-day official reciprocal visit to
Singapore and called in at air force and navy bases in the Lion City. In March
2008, Singapore’s Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Ng Chee Khern visied Hanoi to
discuss on-going cooperation in search and rescue missions, human resource
development and language training. General Khern also held working visits with
officers from the Air Defence and Air Force. Most recently, the Chief of
Singapore’s Defence Force, Desmond Kuek, visited Hanoi in April 2008 where he
held discussions with the VPA Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Khac
Nghien. Agreement was reached to focus defence cooperation on training,
medical corps and humanitarian aid.
Defence contacts between Malaysia and Vietnam date to 1992 but did not reach
senior level until October-November 1994 when General Doan Khue, Vietnam’s
defence minister, paid an official visit to Kuala Lumpur. Khue’s itinerary
included visits to the staff institute of the Malaysian Armed Forces, Syarikat
Malaysia Explosives Technologies, Airod Sdn Bhd, the Udang Special War
Training Centre and the Lumut Naval Base. According to Malaysia’s Defence
Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, ‘We agreed to develop some form of
defence cooperation and collaboration, but we didn’t go into specifics. I prefer
them to look at our industry first’. Although no MOU was signed the two sides

agreed to enhance defence cooperation in exchange visits, training and

cooperation in defence industries. Despite subsequent high-level exchanges there
have been no public reports of substantial defence industry cooperation.
Multilaterally. ASEAN eschewed multilateral defence activities for most of its
existence. Prior to 2003 cooperative military activities by ASEAN states have
been extremely modest: army football and volleyball tournaments, rifle shooting
contests,10 and biennial meetings of war veterans.11 It was only in 2003 with the
adoption of the Bali Concord II that ASEAN set itself the goal of becoming a
security community by 2015. The ASEAN Security Community Plan of Action
comprises six components: political development, shaping and sharing of norms,
conflict prevention, conflict resolution, post-conflict peace building, and
implementing mechanisms.
In May 2004, the Working Group on Security Cooperation of ASEAN Special
Senior Officials Meeting requested the ASEAN Secretariat to draft a concept
paper for ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM). The concept paper
specified that the ADMM would be an integral part of ASEAN and report
directly to the ASEAN Summit. It was specifically tasked with four areas of
responsibility: (1) promote peace and stability via dialogue and cooperation; (2)
give guidance to senior defence/mililitary officials dialogue; (3) promote mutual
trust and confidence, transparency; and (4) contribute to the establishment of the
ASEAN Security Community.
The ADMM was to meet annually and be ‘open, flexible, outward looking’ and
to complement other regional efforts to promote security dialogue and
cooperation including confidence building measures and tangible cooperation
within the ASEAN framework. The ADMM was given oversight of the ASEAN
Chiefs of Defence Force Informal Meeting, ASEAN Chiefs of Army Multilateral
Meeting, ASEAN Air Force Chiefs Conference, ASEAN Navy Interaction,
ASEAN Military Intelligence Informal Meeting. The ADMM was to engage with
ASEAN’s friends and dialogue partners.
The adoption of the ASEAN Security Community proposal gave cover for
multilateral activities to take place. The first meeting of ASEAN Air Force
Commanders was hosted by Thailand in March 2004.12 This meeting approved
plans to establish direct communications channels to promote coordination. The
ASEAN Annual Ministerial Meeting held in Jakarta in June 2004 endorsed plans
to hold military training exercises especially with a counter-terrorism focus. But
plans so far are modest and only include bilateral activities.
More significantly, the Fifth ASEAN Chiefs of Army Multilateral Meeting held in
West Java in September 2004 gave a positive nod to a proposal to intensify
cooperation against terrorism through the exchange of intelligence and joint

10Vietnam hosted the 16th ASEAN Armies Rifle Meet in November 2006.

11The tenth meeting of the Association of War Veterans of ASEAN was held in Brunei in October
2003. The fourteenth ASEAN Armies Rifle Meet was hosted by Indonesia in September 2004.
12Vietnam was represented by Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Than, commander of VPA Air Force.

exercises. The army chiefs agreed to set up a working group to draw up a

detailed program. Vietnam’s representative, Deputy Chief of the General Staff
Major General Nguyen Nang Nguyen, was quoted as stating that the VPA will
boost cooperation with other ASEAN armies ‘to fight terror and contribute to
building an ASEAN of peace, stability, prosperity and protection of national
independence and sovereignty’.
In November 2007, ASEAN adopted a protocol to the Concept Paper and gave
approval for the ADMM to expanded its contacts through a mechanism known
as ADMM Plus. A Joint Declaration was issued at this time endorsing a three-
year work program of defence dialogues and cooperation.

3. Defence Procurements and Defence Industry Cooperation

Over the period 1990-04, Vietnam exchanged high-level defence delegations with
forty-two countries. Press reports indicated that discussions on some aspect of
defence procurements, defence industry cooperation, research and development,
and technical training featured in discussions with at least twenty-three states.
This section reviews Vietnamese expression of interest in and purchase of
weapons, platforms and other military equipment; arms servicing agreements
and defence industry cooperation.
Vietnam has limited resources to devote to its defence establishment. The
Vietnam People’s Army has traditionally supplemented its budget through
domestic economic and commercial activities; since the adoption of doi moi
military-owned enterprises have entered into joint venture agreements with
foreign partners in order to earn hard currency. The financial position of the VPA
became particularly parlous in the period immediately after the collapse of the
Soviet Union. Figures compiled by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament
Agency reveal a sharp drop in arms imports from U.S. $1.1 billion in 1991 to U.S.
$10 million in 1992 and U.S. $10 million in 1993, before rising to U.S. $90 million
in 1994. In 1992, Vietnam managed to off-set the costs of imports by exporting
U.S. $10 million in arms sales. These were the first reported arms exports since
Chart 3 below sets out nominal government defence spending in terms of the
dong, Vietnam’s unit of currency, as a percentage of total government
expenditure for the period 1993-03.14 Defence spending hovered at just under
thirty percent with a slight decline in recent years. Chart 4 displays Vietnam’s
official defence funding in real U.S. dollars for the same period. Defence funding
doubled between 1993-97 to U.S. $2 billion, declined during the two years
following the Asian financial crisis, and has since risen steadily.

13While no details are available, it is known that Vietnam previously sold rifles, mortars and
rocket launchers to rebels in El Salvador and M-113 APCs to Iran. Information on Vietnamese
arms sales is particularly scarce. In 2001 it was reported that Myanmar took delivery of two
consignments of mortar shells produced in Vietnam. But, according to reports, the deal may have
been arranged through arms dealers possibly without Hanoi knowing its final destination (Jane’s
Defence Weekly, March 21, 2001; and Robert Karinol, Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 25, 2001).
14Source: Australian Defence Intelligence Organisation.

Chart 3

Vietnam’s defence budget is a state secret. Vietnam only rarely provides

information on arms procurements, servicing agreements and defence industry
cooperation. For example, Vietnam has submitted reports on arms imports and
exports for inclusion on the United Nations Register of Conventional Weapons
annually since 1994. During this period Vietnam reported arms imports for only
four years, 1995, 1997, 2004 and 2005. Vietnam submitted ‘nil’ reports for all the
other years. These reports are not complete. The Ukraine reported sales to
Vietnam in 1995, 1996, 2002 and 2003 that are not included in Vietnam’s reports
for these years (see Table 1).
Until November 1998 Vietnam was constrained in its arms and equipment
purchases by United States national security legislation that prevented the sale of
military equipment to Vietnam that incorporated U.S. technology. Until the U.S.
ban was lifted, Vietnam was basically forced to look to those countries that had
compatible Soviet-made equipment. That did not prevent Vietnam, however,
from testing the market. Cost and compatibility have governed Vietnam’s arms
and military equipment purchases.

Chart 4

Table 1

Reports to United Nations Register of Conventional Arms1

Country 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006

Exports nil 4 L-39 6 L-39 4 combat 3 Su-222 5 Su-22

Reported combat combat aircraft, 20 combat
to aircraft2 aircraft2 missiles 5 Su-22 aircraft2
Vietnam and UM34
missile 2 LAV
launchers3 armoured

Imports nil nil nil 4 combat 12 missile nil

Reported aircraft, 20 launchers,
by missiles 62 S-300
Vietnam and missiles6

The UN Conventional Register of Conventional Arms records data provided by
countries that export and import weapons in seven general categories; battle
tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft,
attack helicopters and missiles and missile launchers.
These tables were constructed using the annual reports filed by Belarus, Bulgaria,
Czech Republic, Finland, India, Israel, Republic of Korea, Poland, the Russian
Federation, Singapore, Serbia, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, Ukraine and
Vietnam for the period 1992-2006 (when available).
Report by the Ukraine.
Report by the Russian Federation.
Report by the Czech Republic.
Report by Israel.
Imported from the Russian Federation.

Russian Federation. In mid-1992 Russia executed a volte face in its policy on

withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay and entered into a protracted series of
negotiations with Vietnam on the terms and conditions of remaining there. The
two sides failed to reach agreement and in May 2002 the Russians withdrew

completely. In June 1994, Russia and Vietnam signed a friendship treaty that
replaced the 1978 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. In August 1998,
Vietnam and the Russian Federation declared a ‘new strategic partnership,’ and
two years later both sides finally reached an agreement on the settlement of
outstanding debts.
The Russian Federation continues to remain Vietnam’s main source of military
weapons and equipment, but there are indications that cost considerations have
led Vietnam to diversify its imports. In 1994, Vietnam and Russia signed three
major arms procurement contracts.15 The first covered the sale of six Sukhoi Su-
27 fighter-bombers, a flight simulator and a training package for pilots and
maintenance personnel. Reports submitted by Russia and Vietnam for inclusion
on the United Nations Register of Conventional Weapons confirmed the delivery
of five Su-27 SKs and one Su-27 UBK combat aircraft to Vietnam in 1995.
Vietnam followed up on its initial procurements by purchasing an additional six
Su-27s.16 The second contract involved the sale of two Type 1241RA fast attack
craft (FAC); while the third contract involved the sale of four air defence radar
In 1996, Russia and Vietnam established a joint venture to co-produce KBO 2000
and BPS 500-type vessels at the Ba Son naval dockyard in Ho Chi Minh City. The
former is roughly equivalent to a corvette, while the latter is a much smaller fast
attack craft armed with surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs). Vietnam also
proposed the co-production of air defence radars and surface-to-surface missiles.
Subsequently, Vietnam purchased four additional Type 1241RA fast attack craft
and SSMs.17 Between 1996 and 1998, Russia upgraded 32 single-seat Su-22M4
and two twin-seat Su-22UM3 ground attack aircraft.
In 1997, Russian defence industry sources reported the sale of a number of BP-3A
battlefield vehicles and T-8 OU tanks to Vietnam. Russia's Almaz Central Marine
Design Bureau delivered two Type 14310 Svetlyak class patrol boats in December
2002 for use by the Coast Guard service.
The defence relationship between the two countries was further strengthened
during the February/March 2001 visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to
Vietnam. During his stay, the two countries agreed to “strengthen their co-
operation in military supplies to meet Vietnam's security demands”. In 2002, the
Russian Federation listed the sale of eight missiles and missile launchers to

15This sale was valued at U.S. $180 million with eighty-five percent of the payment in hard
currency and the remainder in agricultural produce.
16The U.N. Register of Conventional Weapons lists the sale of two Su-27s to Vietnam in 1997.
Russian press reports in 1997 indicated Vietnam had placed an order for a total of twenty-four
Su-27s in a deal valued at U.S. $500 million. The International Institute of Strategic Studies, The
Military Balance 2004/05, lists a total of twelve Su-27s (7-SK and 5-UBK models) in Vietnam’s
17Reportedly the Mosquito anti-ship missile.

Vietnam on its annual report to the U.N. Register of Conventional Weapons.18 In

2003, Russia and Vietnam reached agreement on three major weapons purchases:
four Su-30 MKKs (with an option for eight more); two Molnya 1241.8 type
missile boats (Ho-A Class in Vietnam), with a further eight to be assembled in
Vietnam19, and two batteries (12 launchers each) of S-300PMU1 surface-to-air
missile systems in a contract valued at U.S. $200 million. The deal, for 12 systems
has a potential value of U.S. $300 million if all options are exercised. The
combined arms purchases for 2003 totaled an estimated U.S. $480 million.
The four Su-30 aircraft were delivered at the end of 2004. However, purchase of
the remaining eight aircraft has proven too costly for Vietnam. Vietnam’s SU-27s
and Su-30s are expected to require an upgrade in order to operate with a range of
air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles, most notably the R-77 beyond-
visual-range AAM. The first S-300PMU1 battery was delivered in August 2005.
In March 2005 it was reported that Vietnam may require a further eight to 10
fighter aircraft, with the Su-27 or Su-30MK the preferred choice. Insufficient
funding may well prove to be an insurmountable stumbling block and could be a
factor in the apparent decision of that year to acquire 40 second-hand Sukhoi Su-
22 attack aircraft. The Project 2100 programme to locally assemble a Russian-built
corvette appears to have been abandoned. It was always doubtful whether
Vietnam possessed the indigenous technical capability to assemble such a
relatively sophisticated vessel In addition to these ‘big ticket’ items, Russia
provides Vietnam with spare parts and assistance in the maintenance and
modernization of military equipment. Vietnamese military personnel continue to
study at Russian academies and military schools.
In December 2007, Russia and Vietnam convened the annual meeting of the
Inter-government Committee for Military Technical Cooperation. The Russian
delegation was led by the director of its Federal Service for Military and
Technical Cooperation. Vietnam is believed to be in the process of negotiating
with Russia for the purchase of an additional six ‘Tarantul 3’ corvettes. The Type
3s are armed with the SS-N-22 Sunburn missile – as on China's ‘Sovremmeny’
class destroyers. Vietnam retains an interest in obtaining full-size submarines
from Russia, probably beginning with two or three platforms. No contract has
been signed or appears imminent.
Ukraine. The Ukraine probably ranks second to the Russian Federation as a
provider of military equipment and technical training to Vietnam. Defence
cooperation between Vietnam and the Ukraine was initiated in March 1994 when
the VPA chief of the general staff paid a visit to Kiev. The VPA deputy chief of
the general staff accompanied his prime minister on a visit in June that year. It
was subsequently reported that the Ukraine sold Vietnam fourteen R27R1 (470-1)
missiles and missile launchers in 1995 and six MiG-21 UM training aircraft in
1996. The chief of the general staff of the Ukraine armed forces paid a return visit

18According to press reports, Vietnam took delivery of fifty portable SA-18 SAMs in 2002 in a
contract valued at U.S. $643 million.
19Other sources report the sale of twelve Project 1241RA FACs.

in September 1997 and discussed cooperation in equipment sales, technology and

personnel training.
As a result of the visit of the Vietnamese defence minister in May 2002, Vietnam
and the Ukraine reached agreement on a significant program of far reaching
military-technical cooperation up to 2005. Under the terms of this agreement the
Ukraine will provide major assistance to Vietnam to upgrade its air defence
(radar, communications and surface-to-air missiles), combat air, naval and
armour and artillery forces. Specifically, Ukrainian specialists have drawn up
plans to modernize the Vietnamese navy and air defence force. These plans call
for substantial Ukrainian involvement across a number of areas including the
renovation of the Ba Son dockyard in Ho Chi Minh City; developing naval test
facilities; arms co-production; mid-level officer exchanges; and repairing,
upgrading and supply of all types of equipment and weapons. The Ukraine will
train thirty to forty senior VPA officers up to the rank of general at its military
academies. According to reports submitted by the Ukraine to the United Nations,
it sold ten L-39 combat training aircraft to Vietnam in 2002-03. In 2005, Vietnam
acquired three ‘Fitter’ aircraft of an unknown version from the Ukraine.
India. In 1994, India and Vietnam signed a protocol on defence cooperation
covering training slots for Vietnamese officers at India’s defence academy,
servicing of Vietnamese military hardware, and continued regular discussions
between the two defence ministries. An Indian official described the protocol as a
low-key framework agreement, while Vietnam’s defence attaché was quoted as
stating, ‘We need India’s help very badly in training our defence personnel,
which is our first priority. India’s assistance in military hardware will be a long-
term cooperative agreement and we are still working on the [details]’. Shortly
after, Vietnam reached agreement with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) to
overhaul and service eight to ten MiG-21 engines and to provide continued
technical support.
Vietnam has shown a keen interest in developing defence industry cooperation.
In May 1995, for example, a Vietnamese military delegation led by the VPA chief
of the general staff, visited India. The delegation toured Hyderabad, Dindigul,
Madras, Bangalore, Goa, Nasik and Pune to study military training and defence
industries, including the operations of such companies as HAL, Ordnance
Factories Board, Bharat Earth Movers Limited, and Goa Shippers Limited.
Later, India agreed to assist Vietnam in setting up defence industry to
manufacture small and medium weapons and other ordnance products (The
Times of India, March 29, 2000). Possible future arms sales include India’s multi-
role advanced light helicopter, warships and anti-ship and air-defence missiles.
In 2000, India and Vietnam signed a wide-ranging defence protocol agreement.20
This document lays the foundation for substantially increased defence
cooperation, and the raising of relations to periodic meetings between defence

20Subhash Kapila, ‘India-Vietnam Strategic Partnership: The Convergence of Interests,’ South

Asia Analysis Group, Paper No. 177, http://www.saag.org/papers2/paper1777.htm.

ministers and the exchange of strategic perceptions and intelligence sharing.

Under the 2000 agreement, India will assist in repairing and overhauling
Vietnam’s fleet of one hundred and twenty MiG-21s and train Vietnamese fighter
pilots and technicians. The Indian Navy will help repair, upgrade and build fast
patrol craft for the Vietnamese navy and offer training to its technical personnel
(The Hindu, March 28, 2000). The protocol also included bilateral naval exercises
and coordinated patrols involving the Vietnamese Marine Police and the Indian
Coast Guard.
In October 2002 Vietnam asked India to provide submarine training but it
remains unclear whether the move was linked to its 1997 acquisition of two small
platforms from North Korea or to a new programme. Whichever is the case, this
request represented the first phase in implementing Vietnam's long-standing
interest in developing an undersea-warfare capability. The following year (2003),
Vietnam provided guerilla warfare training to the Indian armed forces.. In May
2003, India and Vietnam signed a ‘Joint Declaration on Framework of
Comprehensive Cooperation’ that included: regular high-level meetings, close
cooperation in the United Nations and other international fora, assistance with
respect to safeguarding mutual interests, and gradual steps to expand
cooperation in the security and defence fields.
In 2007, in a major development, India and Vietnam declared the establishment
of a “strategic partnership” during the visit by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan
Dung. In November, India and Vietnam held their third Security Dialogue in
New Delhi where it was decided to step up cooperation in training of junior level
officers, to conduct a security dialogue annually, to share expertise on issues of
common concern such as maritime security, border management and counter
insurgency, training in UN peacekeeping operations, and invite Vietnamese
observers to attend Indian military exercises. In December, India’s Defence
Minister A. K. Anthony visited Hanoi accompanied by the Vice Chief of Army
Staff and senior air force and navy officers. Agreement was reached for India to
supply Vietnam with 5,000 essential spares for its Petya-class anti-submarine
ships in order to make them operational. Additionally, India agreed to dispatch a
four-member army team to Vietnam during the first half of 2008 to conduct
training on UN peacekeeping operations. Finally, the two sides agreed to set up a
Joint Working Group to facilitate the signing of a Memorandum of Understading
on defence cooperation (including cooperation on national defence, navy, air
defence and personnel training). The Indian delegation also visited defence
industries in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam’s Defence Minister sought Indian assistance in training of defence
personnel,21 enhancing the exchanges of delegations, expanding training
cooperation, cooperation between national defence industries, an increase in the
frequency of goodwill visits by naval ships, application of information
technology and e-technology, and technical support for the Vietnamese navy.

21As of the time of Anthony’s visit, 49 VPA officers attended various army and navy course sin
India and a further 64 attended English language courses.

Most recently, Lt. Gen. Truong Quang Khanh, head of General Department of
Defence Industry, Ministry of National Defence, attended an international
defence exposition, DEFEXPO-2008, in New Delhi in February 2008. That same
month Admiral Sureesh Mehta, Chief of the Army Staff Committee, visited
Hanoi where he met with Deputy Defence Minister Senior Lt. Gen. Nguyen Khac
Vien. Admiral Mehta inspected the Hong Ha Shipbuilding Company and also
visited Ho Chi Minh City before departing. Finally, in April the Flag Officer
Commander in Chief of the Indian Eastern Naval Command, Vice Admiral R. P.
Suthan led two warships on a port call to Hanoi. He held discussions with VPA
Vice Chief of the General Staff, Tran Quang Khue.
Europe. In addition to its substantial arms purchasing arrangements with Russia
and the Ukraine, Vietnam has also explored the possibilities of defence
procurements and military assistance with several states in Europe, particularly
former members of the Warsaw Pact.
In the early 1990s, Vietnam purchased nine Aero L-39 Albatross jet trainers from
the former Czech and Slovak Republic, and later sought assistance in their
maintenance and repair. In 1995 Vietnam reached agreement with Omnipol for
the purchase of technology and equipment to produce Grad multiple tube
launched rockets in Vietnam. In May 2000, Vietnam’s defence minister visited
the Czech Republic where he sought cooperation in arms manufacturing and
repair and officer training. In May 2003, the Czech foreign minister visited Hanoi
and offered assistance to upgrade Vietnam’s T-72 battle tank. The minister also
offered to sell anti-chemical warfare uniforms and equipment. At least five
former Czech Su-22UM3 two-seaters are known to have been delivered to
Vietnam in 2005 and it is possible that up to 25 other surplus Czech Su-22M4s
could also have found their way to Vietnam (for Polish deliveries see below).
In July 1994, the prime minister of Slovakia visited Vietnam accompanied by his
defence minister and a number of representatives of the arms industry. While in
Hanoi they picked up expressions of Vietnamese interest in purchasing T-72 Ms
tanks and artillery. The following month Vietnam’s president paid a visit to
Slovakia where he proposed cooperation between defence industries, including
the construction of coastal defence vessels. In May 2002, Vietnam’s defence
minister Pham Van Tra visited the Slovak Republic. Tra sounded out his
counterpart on possible defence industry cooperation and the modernization of
military equipment to be undertaken in Slovak factories. Specifically, Tra
expressed an interest in the Brams mobile anti-aircraft complex, and the Aligator
light armoured vehicle. Tra returned to Hanoi with a proposal from Slovak
defence manufactures.
Bulgaria and Vietnam extended their defence cooperation agreement in 1997
during the course of the visit by the Vietnamese defence minister. Reportedly
this agreement included cooperation in such areas as the supply of spare parts
for MiG-21 aircraft, military equipment repair, military science and medicine,
and personnel exchange. In October 2007, the Bulgarian Defence Minister visited
Vietnam to discuss military cooperation in language training, culture, sports and,
more significantly, military technology.

In December 1998, the Polish deputy defence minister visited Vietnam to initiate
discussions on cooperation in shipbuilding and arms sales (including MiG-21s
and infantry weapons). Poland provided Vietnam with a grant of U.S. $70
million to assist in naval construction. In May 2000, Vietnam’s defence minister
visited Poland where he expressed an interest in purchasing Anaconda
helicopters and Bryza aircraft. Both sides discussed possible future cooperation
in such areas as upgrading battle tanks (with new fire control systems), co-
production of ammunition and officer training.
In October 2003, Vietnam signed an agreement to buy up to 10 Polskie Zaklady
Lotnicze (PZL) M28 Skytruck short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft
configured for maritime surveillance and border-control missions from Poland in
a deal valued at around U.S. $40 million. Two aircraft were delivered in
December 2004 and a further two were reportedly handed over in mid-2005. The
aircraft are likely to be operated by the air force. In early March 2005 it was
reported that Poland would supply T-72 MBTs together with training and basic
maintenance equipment, as well as ammunition. The shipment of 150 second-
hand tanks, probably from Poland's surplus stocks, was due to begin in the third
quarter of 2005. Also in 2005, Vietnam acquired forty Su-22Ms ground attack
aircraft from a Polish source.
The VPA Chief of General Staff, General Nguyen Khac Vien, visited Belarus from
June 21-23, 2007 where he held discussions with Minister of Defence Colonel
General Leonid Maltsev and the First Deputy Defence Minister Lt. Gen. Sergei
Gurulev. A year later (January 2008) the First Vice President of the Belarus State
Defence Industry Committee visited Hanoi for talks with Defence Minister
General Phung Quang Thanh.
In addition to former members of the Warsaw Pact, Vietnam has explored
possible arms procurements and defence cooperation with a number of other
European states. In 1997 it was reported that Vietnam had taken delivery of
French armoured vehicles within the ‘past two years’. In mid-1997, Vietnam
opened discussions with Serbia-Montenegro for the purchase of the locally
upgraded T-55 main battle tank. The next year Finland proposed selling Vietnam
spare parts from its mothballed fleet of MiG-21s. In February 2005 it was
reported that the Finnish Defence Forces were planning to sell a fleet of up to 70
Soviet-era T-54 and T-55 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) to Vietnam.
In June 1997, the United Kingdom used a port call by HMS Beaver to promote the
sale of defence equipment to Vietnam. In March 1999, Prince Andrew led a
delegation of eleven firms to Ho Chi Minh City to showcase British defence
equipment. The Prince’s visit coincided with the port call by HMS Boxer. Finally,
in 1999 Vietnam expressed an interest in acquiring its first military
communications satellite. Vietnamese officials approached Acatel, a French
company, as well as Matra Marconi Space, a joint British-French company (Hanoi
also approached American firms Lockheed Martin and Loral Space).
In 2005, Austria agreed to fund the development of vocational schools linked to
Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defence. On January 15, 2008 Austria agreed to
extend this program into a third phase to 2009 valued at €15 million. In
December 2007, Lt. Gen. Gianni Botondi, Italy’s Secretary General for Defence

and National Armaments made an official visit to Vietnam to discuss the

structue of national defence industry. Italy and Vietnam agreed to set up a
working group to promote bilateral cooperation. In May 2008, Deputy Minister
of Defence, Senior Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huy Hieu paid a working visit to
Switzerland for discussions with the Chief of the Federal Department of Defence,
Civil Protection and Sports on boosting defence cooperation. General Hieu
visited some Swiss industrial establishments.
Other Suppliers. There are only three other countries that feature in Vietnam’s
arms procurement and military modernization efforts: Israel, North Korea and
South Korea. In 1993 Israeli defence firms approached Vietnam with an offer to
upgrade its fleet of Soviet manufactured jet aircraft, armour and artillery. In
January 1994, officials from Vietnam’s Defence Ministry’s Defence Industry and
General Technology Department made a visit to Israel to assess possible Israeli
assistance in upgrading the VPA’s communications capability. The following
year an Israeli firm was awarded a contract to upgrade Vietnam’s military
communications network. In 1999, Israeli firms were unsuccessful in bidding for
the contract to refurbish Vietnam’s fleet of MiG aircraft. During the course of the
visit by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Cong Tan in November 1999, it was
revealed that Israeli defence industries have begun contracts with Vietnam on
defence exports. No other details were provided.
The 1994, Vietnam and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea exchanged
visits by their respective defence ministers. The two sides agreed to a barter deal
under which Vietnam would supply rice in exchange for weapons parts and
ammunition. In December 1996, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Defense, General
Nguyen Thoi Bung, visited North Korea and signed a defense package deal
worth US $100 million reportedly involving the sale of Igla (SA-16 Gimlet)
portable air defense missiles and Scud short-range ballistic missiles. The
following year it was reported that Vietnam had taken delivery of two North
Korean Yugo class mini-submarines and was refurbishing them at Cam Ranh Bay
(Robert Karniol, Jane’s Defense Weekly, December 9, 1998). In April 1999, it was
reported that Vietnam had acquired a quantity of Scud C surface-to-surface
missiles with a range of 550 kilometres (with a payload of 770 kilograms). In 2003
there were further reports that North Korea had sold unspecified military
technology to Vietnam (Far Eastern Economic Review, February 13, 2003).
In 1994, two years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between
Vietnam and South Korea, Vietnam reportedly approached the Huyndai
Corporation to purchase three 80-ton fast boats for coastal patrol. Hyundai
officials did not deny these reports but claimed they had not applied for an exit
permit. In April 1995, the two foreign ministers agreed, among other things, to
exchange defence industrial materials. In October of that same year, South Korea
posted its first defence attaché to Hanoi.
The two countries exchanged visits by their respective defence ministers in late
2000 and early 2001. In the course of the visit of the South Korean defence
minister, the agenda included consideration of exchanges on defence technology
and related industries. During the return visit by Vietnam’s defence minister,
two memoranda of understanding were reached; the first dealt with cooperation
in defence industry and logistics, while the second covered exchanges in military

education. Vietnam’s defence minister visited several South Korean defence

firms and arms manufacturers. It was reported at this time that Daewoo Heavy
Industries and Machinery was considering a joint venture with Vietnam to
refurbish its stock of American-manufactured armoured personnel vehicles. In
November 2001, South Korea hosted an exhibition of military and electronics
products during the port call by three of its naval ships. In September 2007, the
two South Korean naval ships (a destroyer and logistics ship) called in at the port
of Ho Chi Minh City. In January 2008, Vietnam’s naval commander, Vice
Admiral Nguyen Van Hien, made a rare five-day overseas visit to Seoul to
discuss expanding ties between the two navies. Admiral Hien met and had
discussions with the South Korean Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Song
Young-moo. The two admirals discussed the enhancement of cooperation in the
defence industry sector.

5. The Structure of Vietnam-China Relations, 1991-2007

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam’s relations with China
are structured on both a multilateral basis through membership in ASEAN, the
ASEAN Regional Forum and other multilateral bodies, and bilaterally, through a
long-term cooperative framework agreement. When Vietnam joined ASEAN in
1995 it assumed responsibility for participating in all multilateral arrangements
entered into by ASEAN and China.
In July 1994 ASEAN and China reached formal agreement to establish two joint
committees — one on science and technology cooperation and the other on
economic and trade cooperation. ASEAN and China also agreed to open
consultations on political and security issues at the senior official level. The first
China-ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting was held in Hangzhou in April 1995.
In 1996, China was accorded official dialogue partner status by ASEAN, and in
February the following year, ASEAN and China formalized their cooperation by
establishing the ASEAN-China Joint Cooperation Committee (ACJCC). The
ACJCC first met in Beijing where it was agreed that it would ‘act as the
coordinator for all the ASEAN-China mechanisms at the working level’.22 As an
ASEAN dialogue partner, China regularly participates in the annual ASEAN
Post-Ministerial Conference consultation process. This takes the form of a
meeting between ASEAN and its ten dialogue partners (ASEAN Ten Plus Ten),
and a separate meeting between ASEAN members and each of its dialogue
partners (ASEAN Ten Plus One).
China-ASEAN relations advanced in November 2002 with the signing of three
major documents: Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic
Cooperation Between ASEAN Nations and the People’s Republic of China, Joint
Declaration between China and ASEAN on Cooperation in Non-Traditional
Security Fields, and Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea
(DOC). The first agreement laid the foundations for the China-ASEAN Free

22Joint Press Release, “The First ASEAN-China Joint Cooperation Committee Meeting,” Beijing,
February 26-28, 1997.

Trade Area. The joint declaration on non-traditional security was formalized in a

Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in January 2004. The MOU followed a
special meeting held in Bangkok in April 2003 to discuss joint action to deal with
the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic.23 A major advance
towards the free trade area was taken in January 2007 when China and ASEAN
signed the Agreement on Trade in Services at their tenth summit in Cebu, the
Originally, ASEAN sought to negotiate a Code of Conduct for the South China
Sea. China resisted ASEAN diplomatic pressure to agree to a formal legally-
binding code. Nevertheless, China and ASEAN were able to develop
unprecedented cooperation under the umbrella of the DOC . In September 2003,
Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s
Congress, proposed joint oil exploration and development in areas of
overlapping claims in the South China Sea (see discussion below). Early in 2004,
ASEAN and China agreed to set up a Joint Working Group to implement the
Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. In October 2003, China’s zone of
interaction with ASEAN was enhanced when China acceded to the ASEAN
Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and China issued a joint declaration with
ASEAN establishing a strategic partnership.24 The joint declaration was the first
formal agreement of this type between China and a regional organization, as
well as a first for ASEAN itself. The joint declaration was wide-ranging and
included a provision for the initiation of a new security dialogue as well as
general cooperation in political matters.25
In July the following year, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan raised the prospect of
developing ‘enhanced strategic relations’ with ASEAN in his discussions with
Secretary General Ong Keng Yong in Beijing. As a result, China and ASEAN
drafted a five-year Plan of Action (2005-2010) in late 2004. This plan included,
inter alia, a joint commitment to increase regular high-level bilateral visits,
cooperation in the field of non-traditional security, security dialogue and military
exchanges and cooperation.26 The Plan of Action set out the following objectives:

23In September 2004, China hosted ARF Workshop on Drug-Substitute Alternative Development
and in March 2005, China hosted an ARF seminar on enhancing cooperation in the field of non-
traditional security issues.
24Carlyle A. Thayer, ‘China and Southeast Asia: A Shifting Zone of Interaction’, in Sean
McDonald and Bruce Vaughn, eds., The Borderlands of Southeast Asia: Geopolitics, Terrorism, and
Globalization. Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming.
25Joint Declaration of the Heads of State/Government of the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations and the People’s Republic of China on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity ,
October 8, 2003. For an analysis see: Lyall Breckon, “A New Strategic Partnership is Declared,”
Comparative Connections: An E-Journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations, 5:4, 4th Quarter,
October-December 2003.
26Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration of ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for
Peace and Prosperity.

• Promote mutual confidence and trust in defense and military fields with a
view to maintaining peace and stability in the region;
• Conduct dialogues, consultations and seminars on security and defense
• Strengthen cooperation on military personnel training;
• Consider observing each other’s military exercises and explore the
possibility of conducting bilateral or multilateral joint military exercises;
• Explore and enhance cooperation in the field of peacekeeping.
ASEAN has been reluctant to advance military cooperation with China too
quickly. In May 2004, during the course of a visit to Beijing by Malaysia’s new
prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, his Chinese counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao,
suggested they consider a joint undertaking to maintain the security of sea lines
of communication through the Malacca Strait. This proposal was pressed the
following month by Senior Colonel Wang Zhongchun, deputy director of China’s
National Defense University. In a paper presented to the China-ASEAN forum in
Singapore, Wang proposed joint naval exercises and patrols (as well as
intelligence exchanges on terrorism). According to one analyst, Wang’s proposal
was received coolly and with considerable skepticism by the audience.27 Three
years later, however, Indonesia proposed seeking technical assistance from both
China and Japan on an ASEAN-wide and bilateral basis to build up the capacity
of the littoral states.28
In November 2004, at the 8th China-ASEAN Summit, Premier Wen Jiabao once
again raised China’s proposal to shelve disputes in the South China Sea ‘while
going for joint development.’ This led to a major break through in March the
following year when the national oil companies of China, the Philippines and
Vietnam signed an agreement to conduct joint seismic testing in the South China
In July 2005, President Hu Jintao reiterated China’s call for joint development
during the course of state visits to Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.30 That
month, China and ASEAN set up the Joint Working Group on the Declaration on
the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and charged it with
recommending measures to implement the agreement. The Working Group held

27Ronald Montaperto, “Smoothing the Wrinkles,” Comparative Connections: An E-Journal on East

Asian Bilateral Relations, 6:2, 2nd Quarter, April-June 2004.
28Shefall Rekhi, “Indonesia seeks wider China and Japan role,” The Straits Times, June 4, 2007.

29“Tripartite agreement on joint survey of seismic activity in East Sea signed,” Vietnam News
Agency, March 14, 2005; Ma. Theresa Torres and Niel Villegas Mugas, “RP, China, Vietnam to
explore Spratlys,” The Manila Times, March 16, 2005; “China, Vietnam agree to joint exploration of
disputed areas,” Xinhua, Beijing, July 4, 2005; and “China, Philippines, Vietnam work on
disputed South China Sea area,” Xinhua, August 27, 2005.
30Xinhuanet, Beijing, July 19, 2005 in People’s Liberation Army Daily, July 20, 2005.

its second meeting in Hainan in February 2006. In light of deadly pirate attacks
on Chinese fishing vessels in May 2006, China, the Philippines and Vietnam
agreed to strengthen security cooperation in the South China Sea.31
The ASEAN-China strategic partnership was consolidated with the holding of
the first workshop on regional security between defence department officials in
Beijing in July 2006. ASEAN and China also held a heads of government
Commemorative Summit in Nanning to mark the fifteenth anniversary of
China’s status as a dialogue partner. By the end of 2006, ASEAN and China had
concluded twenty-eight ‘cooperation framework mechanisms,’ including regular
consultations between senior officials on strategic and political security
cooperation, a yearly conference of foreign ministers, and an annual summit
meeting of government leaders.32 These developments provided a firm
foundation for the development of security and defense cooperation in the
ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Vietnam was a founding member of the ASEAN
Regional Forum in 1994. Membership in the ARF provides a multilateral
framework for Vietnam’s defence-security relations and interaction with China.
When China first joined the ASEAN Regional Forum it was highly suspicious
about multilateral activities that might curtail its national sovereignty. Over time,
however, China has come to embrace multilateral security cooperation under the
auspices of the ARF.33 China has taken a particularly active role in the ARF’s
inter-sessional work program related to confidence building measures. In March
1997, for example, China hosted the Inter-Sessional Group on Confidence
Building Measures, and did so again in November 2003.
In 1997, China sent representatives to the ARF meeting of Heads of Defense
Colleges and hosted the 4th ARF meeting of the Heads of Defense Colleges in
September 2000. The meeting was opened by Defence Minister Chi Haotian, who
argued that the ARF’s stress on dialog and consultation represented a ‘new
security concept’ and the trend of ‘multi-polarization’ in the region. Chi noted
that regional flash points still existed, ‘hegemonism and power politics have
shown new traces of development’ and ‘democracy and human rights’ were
being used as excuses for intervention, and ‘separatism was gaining ground. All
these will endanger or jeopardize the security and stability of the region. That’s
why we advocate that all countries adopt the new security concept built upon
equality, dialogue, mutual confidence and cooperation.’34 In 2000, China also

31Agence France-Presse, “Philippines, China, Vietnam to cooperate in Spratlys security,”

Channelnewsasia.com, May 19, 2006.
32Robert Sutter and Chin-Hao Huang, “Chinese Diplomacy and Optimism about ASEAN,”
Comparative Connections: An E-Journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations, 8:3, 3rd Quarter, July-
September 2006.
33Alice d. Ba, “Who’s socializing whom? Complex engagement in Sino-ASEAN relations,” The
Pacific Review, 19(2), June 2006, pp. 157-179.
34Xinhua News Agency, September 6, 2000.

contributed for the first time to the ARF’s Annual Security Outlook and began
providing voluntary briefings on regional security.
While China’s participation in the ARF’s program of confidence building
measures has evolved over time, China’s endorsement of preventive diplomacy
has been more circumscribed. In a Defence White Paper issued in late 2000,
China provided this cautious assessment:
China holds that the ARF should continue to focus on confidence-building
measures, explore new security concepts and methods, and discuss the
question of preventive diplomacy. At the same time, it believes that the
parties concerned should have a full discussion first on the concept,
definition, principles and scope of preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific
region and reach consensus in this regard.35
According to one China analyst ‘two of the defining features of that document
[the 2000 Defence White Paper] were the emphasis on the dominance of peace
and development as forces driving global development and a corollary
imperative toward implementing external policies based upon multilateral
cooperative approaches.’36 Since 2000, China has consistently promoted its new
security concept as the preferred framework for multilateral cooperation. For
example, in July 2002 China outlined its new security concept in a position paper
presented to the annual ARF ministerial meeting.
In 2003, China launched a major initiative to further its new concept of security.
At the annual ARF ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, China proposed the
creation of a Security Policy Conference comprised of senior military and civilian
officials (vice minister level) drawn from all ARF members. The objective of this
new security mechanism would be to draft a security treaty to promote ‘peace,
stability and prosperity’ in the region. Chinese officials said the new treaty
would give equal attention to the concerns of all ARF members and guarantee
security through united action rather than seeking ‘absolute security for oneself
and threaten[ing] other parties’ security.’37 China drafted and circulated a
concept paper prior to hosting the first ARF Security Policy Conference in
November 2004.38
At the 11th ARF Ministerial Meeting in 2004, China tabled a series of proposals
for the future development of the ARF. These were later summarized as follows:

35People’s Republic of China, State Council, Information Office, China’s National Defense in
2000, Text of PRC White Paper on National Defense in 2000, Xinhua Domestic Service, Beijing,
October 16, 2001.
36Ronald Montaperto, “Thinking Globally, Acting Regionally,” Comparative Connections: An E-
Journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations, 6:4, 4th Quarter, October-December 2004.
37Lyall Breckon, “SARS and a New Security Initiative from China,” Comparative Connections: An
E-Journal on East Asian Bilateral Relations, 5:2, 2nd Quarter, April-June 2003.
38Dana R. Dillon and John J. Tkacik, Jr., ‘China and ASEAN: Endangered American Primacy in
Southeast Asia’, Backgrounder No. 1886. Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, October
19, 2005, p. 3. The second ARF Security Policy Conference was held in Vientiane in May 2005.

To maintain its forum nature and adhere to the basic principles of decision-
making through consensus, taking an incremental approach, and moving at a
pace comfortable to all member so as to encourage the initiative and active
participation of all members; to continuously strengthen and consolidate
confidence-building measures (CBMs) while actively addressing the issue of
preventive diplomacy, so as to gradually find out cooperative methods and
approaches for preventive diplomacy that are suitable to the region and
fitting the current needs; to increase participation of defense officials,
promote exchanges and cooperation among militaries of the countries
concerned and give full play to the important role of the militaries in
enhancing mutual trust; to highlight cooperation in non-traditional security
fields such as counter-terrorism and combating transnational crimes.39
China’s 2004 Defense White Paper identified five main areas of international
security cooperation: strategic consultation and dialogue; regional security
cooperation; cooperation in non-traditional security fields, participating in
United Nations peacekeeping operations; and military exchanges. Chapter nine
highlighted the importance China placed on its interaction with ASEAN and the
ASEAN Regional Forum.
The Defense White Paper also set out Beijing’s policy on international
cooperation in the area of defense-related science, technology and industry
including the export of military products and related technologies. According to
this document, China’s exports in this sensitive area were governed by three
principles: ‘It should only serve the purpose of helping the recipient state
enhance its capability for legitimate self-defense; it must not impair peace,
security and stability of the relevant region and the world as a whole; and it must
not be used to interfere in the recipient state’s internal affairs.’40
Bilateral. After a decade-long estrangement during the Cambodian conflict,
leaders from Hanoi and Beijing met in secret in southern China in September
1990 and agreed to normalize bilateral relations. China and Vietnam resumed
high-level political contact in November 1991, pointedly only after Vietnam had
agreed to a comprehensive political settlement in Cambodia. Bilateral political
relations between Vietnam and China were codified by party leaders who met in
Beijing in early 1999 (Xinhua Domestic Service, February 27, 1999). Late the
following year the two sides signed a ‘Joint Statement for Comprehensive
Cooperation in the New Century between the People’s Republic of China and the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam’ (Vietnam News Agency, December 25, 2000).
It is notable that between February 1999 and December 2000, the People’s
Republic of China (PRC) negotiated long-term cooperative framework
arrangements with all ten ASEAN members.41 Generally these took the form of

39People’s Republic of China, State Council, China’s National Defense in 2004, Beijing: Information
Office, December 27, 2004, chapter nine.
40Ibid., chapter seven.

41These arrangements were variously titled: framework agreement, framework document, joint
statement and joint declaration. For a detailed analysis consult: Thayer, ‘China’s “New Security

joint statements signed by foreign ministers or vice premiers. Six of China’s

long-term cooperative framework agreements included a reference to security
cooperation (Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, and Laos).
Subsequently, several of these long-term cooperative framework agreements
have been enhanced through additional joint declarations and/or memoranda of
It is notable that no defence clause was included in the Sino-Vietnamese
agreement, perhaps because of the contentious nature of unresolved territorial
disputes in the South China Sea. According to the joint statement, ‘[b]oth sides
will refrain from taking any action that might complicate and escalate disputes,
resorting to force or making threats with force’. Defence contacts were first
opened with the exchange of delegations from the Vietnamese and Chinese
defence ministries’ External Relations Departments in February and May 1992,
respectively. Data for the period 2002-06 reveals there is a marked imbalance in
the exchange of delegations at the ministerial level. Vietnam’s defence minister
has visited China four times, while China’s defence minister has made only one
visit to Hanoi. The exchanges at the level of Chief of the General Staff, General
Political Department and General Logistics Department are more balanced.
Contact at the level of service chiefs has been confined to one visit by the PLA
Navy Air Force in 1997.
China and ASEAN members carried out seventy-one high-level defence visits in
the period from 2002 to 2006. Sixteen were ministerial level visits. Reciprocal
visits by defence ministers were conducted by China with five countries
including Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Vietnam
and China exchanged nine high-level delegations during this period. In the
period between 2001-2006, China and Southeast Asia conducted eleven naval
goodwill visits involving seven regional states. Chinese warships visited
Vietnam, Singapore (twice), Thailand and Brunei. In November 2001, PLAN
Jiangwei-II guided missile frigate visits Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese navy
has yet to make a return visit.
Defence relations between China and Vietnam appear almost entirely focused on
exchanges of views on regional security and ideological matters and border
security issues. Table 2 sets out data on the exchange of delegations at the
Military Region level between 1996 and 2003. Since the normalization of relations
both China and Vietnam have undertaken to demine and to dispose of
unexploded ordnance in their frontier area. Since the signing of a treaty on their
common border in December 1999, both sides have begun to physically
demarcate this area. This process is expected to be completed in June 2008.
In October 2005, the Chinese and Vietnamese defence ministers tentatively
discussed cooperation between their nation defense industries. China’s state-

Concept” and Southeast Asia’, pp. 92-95. For a recent review of China’s bilateral relations with
Southeast Asia see: Jürgen Haacke, ‘The Significance of Beijing’s Bilateral Relations: Looking
“Below” the Regional Level in China-ASEAN Ties,’ in Ho Khai Leong and Samuel C. Y. Ku, eds.,
China and Southeast Asia: Global Changes and Regional Challenges. Institute of Southeast Asian
Studies, Singapore, 2005, pp. 118-140.

owned armed supplier, NORINCO, was reported to be providing Vietnam with

ammunition for small arms and artillery, military vehicles and assisting in co-
production of ammunition and heavy machine guns.42

42Jane’s Defense Weekly, 4 January 2006, on line edition.


Table 2
Exchanges at Military Region Level between China and Vietnam, 1996-2003

To Vietnam From Vietnam

1996 January Guangzhou Military Region 1997 April Military Region 2

1997 February Jinan Military Region 1999 November Military Region 3
1997 June Chengdu Military Region
1998 July Chengdu Military Region
2000 January Jinan Military Region
2000 July Chengdu Military Region
2002 April Guangzhou Military Region
2003 January Chengdu Military Region

In a new development, in April 2006, China and Vietnam commenced joint naval
patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin. This was a first for the Chinese navy. In August
2006, after the two party leaders, Nong Duc Manh and Hu Jintao, met in Beijing,
they issued a joint communiqué that noted ‘both sides spoke positively of… the
joint patrol conducted by the navies of the two countries in the Tonkin Gulf’.43
The second China-Vietnam joint patrol was conducted in late December 2006. A
month earlier Vietnam Petroleum Corporation (PetroVietnam) and the China
National Offshore Oil Corporation reached agreement to conduct joint
exploration in the Gulf of Tonkin. On January 5, 2007, Prime Minister Nguyen
Tan Dung gave his approval for joint oil exploration to commence.
In April 2005, China and Vietnam commenced extremely low-key ‘consultations
on defensive security’ in Beijing. China had already initiated defence security
consultations with Thailand, and the Philippines.
6. Impact of Defence on Foreign Policy
The above sections have traced Vietnam’s growing defence-security ties with
China within both multilateral and bilateral settings. The growth of this
relationships appears in accord with the broad tenets of Vietnamese foreign
policy – to multilateralise and diversify foreign relations, to be a reliable partner
with all countries, and to develop strategic partnerships with the major powers.
According to Alexander Vuving, there are at least major identifiable leadership
groupings in Vietnam, the ‘anti-imperialists’ and the ‘integrationists’.44 The

43‘China-Vietnam Joint Communiqué’, Beijing, 24 August 2006.

44Alexander Vuving, “Strategy and Evolution of Vietnam’s China Policy: A Changing Mixture of
Pathways,” Asian Survey, 46(6), November 2006.

former still harbour suspicion about U.S. intentions, while the later seek to
integrate Vietnam into the global economy including gaining access to the U.S.
During 2007 events in the South China Sea produced serious friction in Sino-
Vietnamese relations. Vietnam has chosen to censor any and all public reporting
on these developments. However in late 2007 there was an outpouring of
nationalism on the part of Vietnamese students who mounted unprecedented
public protests against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. This section will
review these events.
Just after Vietnam was admitted into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the
Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee held its fourth plenary session
from January 15-24, 2007. This meeting took the decision to order the party, the
army, police and regime-approved mass organizations to divest themselves of
their commercial enterprises. Ownership will reportedly be transferred to a
jolding company which will make a determination about which enterprises will
be equitised and sold to private investors.
The Vietnam People's Army, for example, currently runs 140 enterprises and
hold shares in another twenty companies. These enterprises are engaged in an
incredibly diverse range of economic activities from coffee production, coal
mining, garment manufacture, stock broking, and telecommunications to health
services. In 2006, army-run enterprises earned US $2 billion in revenue or 3
percent of Vietnam's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Divestiture will touch on
sensitive sources of funding for the military at a time when developments in the
South China Sea seemingly demand an increase in defence expendutire.
In 2006, the the 10th National Party Congress adopted a resolution decreeing that
Vietnam’s maritime economy should be strongly developed with a focus on
sectors that have comparative advantages in order to develop a strong maritime
economy, maintain national defence and security in a spirit of international
cooperation. This matter was considered by the fourth plenum of VCP Central
Committee that met in January 2007. Reports submitted to this meeting noted
that there was no coherent plan to integrate the economic development of coastal
areas with the exploitation of marine resources in Vietnam's territorial waters.
Economists estimated that by 2020, the marine economy would contribute up to
55 percent of GDP and between 55-60 percent of exports.
The fourth plenum directed that a national 'Maritime Strategy Towards the Year
2020' be drawn up to integrate economic development with environmental
protection and national defence and security. The Vietnam People’s Army was
tasked with ‘defending territorial waters and safeguarding national sovereignty.’
The maritime strategy was completed by the end of the year but has not yet been
released publicly. Chinese officials reportedly acquired a classified copy and
noted that Vietnam’s plans included developing areas over which China has
territorial claims. China then began to apply pressure of foreign firms that were
likely to be involved in developing Vietnam’s maritime sector, warning them
that their commercial operations in China might suffer if they became involved
in developing areas claimed by China.

China’s behind-the-scenes actions were accompanied by greater diplomatic and

military assertiveness. For example, Vietnam lodged a protest when China
implanted boundary markers on the Xisha (Paracel) Islands, claiming these
violated Vietnamese sovereignty. On January 4, 2007, Liu Jianchao, spokesperson
for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed this protest declaring: ‘China has
indisputable sovereignty over the Xisha, Nansha Islands and adjacent islands.
And we have all historical and legal evidences needed to prove this’. Liu also
noted that the erection of structures marking the base points of China’s territorial
sea is a question of Chinese sovereignty and other countries have no right to
intervene. Liu noted that based on the United Nations Convention on Law of he
Sea and China’s Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone. China issued
base points on Xisha Islands as early as 1996 (Press Trust of India, Beijing,
January 4, 2007).
It was in this context that China and Vietnam held their 13th round of discussions
on border and territorial issues in Nanning from January 19-20, 2007. This
meeting canvassed land and maritime issues. Regarding the South China Sea, the
Vietnam News Agency reported: ‘Regarding marine issues, on the basis of
common perception and the agreement already reached between leaders of the
two countries, both sides discussed in depth measures to maintain peace and
stability in the East Sea, without any action to complicate or widen disputes.
They agreed to continue the negotiation mechanism in order to seek a basic and
long-term solution that is acceptable to both sides and in line with international
laws and practices, particularly the United Nations Convention on the 1982 Law
of the Sea and Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC).’45
In March, it was announced that British Petroleum (BP) and its partners had
submitted plans to the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry for an investment of US
$2 billion in a major expansion in gas and power development over the next
decade. These plans included installing at least two natural gas pipelines
connecting off shore deposits in two new gas fields, Moc Tinh and Hai Thach, in
the Nam Con Son basin in the South China Sea. BP’s plans also included the
construction of a power plant in Nhon Trach in Dong Nai province.46 BP
currently maintains the only operational pipeline which connects the Lan Tay-
Lan Do gas field in the Nam Con Son basin to the Phu My power complex in Ba
Ria-Vung Tau. The new fields to be connected to the proposed pipeline are
adjacent to the fields from which BP operates a pipeline.
The question of BP’s future operations quickly became a contentious issue in
Sino-Vietnamese relations. On April 9, 2007, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the
National People’s Congress, met with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Phu
Trong. Wu stated that the two countries should tackle boundary issues
appropriately in an effort to maintain stability in the South China Sea. Wu also
said, ‘The two countries should enhance political mutual trust, appropriately

45Vietnam News Agency, Beijing, January 21, 2007; Quan Doi Nhan Dan, January 22, 2007.

46Dong Ha, ‘BP, PetroVietnam rearrange gas pipeline overhauls plan’, Thanh Nien, March 14,

deal with the boundary issue and implement related agreements.’47 On the same
day, President Hu Jintao told Trong, ‘China is ready to work with Vietnam to
appropriately deal with the issue of land and maritime borders to jointly
maintain peace in the border area.’48
On April 10, Qin Gang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, was directly asked by a reporter from the state-run media about BP’s
proposed pipeline and Vietnam’s plan to hold voting for the National Assembly
on its possessions in the South China Sea. Qin replied, ‘China has indisputable
[irrefutable] sovereignty over the Nansha Islands [Spratly Islands] and their
adjacent waters and neighbouring marine areas… [With everyone’s hard work,
at present the situation in the South China Sea is stable]…Vietnam’s new actions,
which infringe on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights [power] and
administrative rights on the Nansha Islands, go against the important consensus
reached by leaders of the two countries on the maritime issue and are not
beneficial to stability of the South China Sea area.’49 Qin observed that any one-
sided action taken by any country in the South China Sea are ‘illegal and invalid’
constituting as encroachment upon Chinese territorial sovereignty.50 Qin was
also quoted as sating: ‘It is not beneficial to stability in the South China Sea area.
The Chinese side is paying close attention and we have already made serious
representations to the Vietnamese side.’51
By way of response, on April 11, Le Dzung, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence
and legal basis to confirm its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and
Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands. Dzung said Vietnam’s operations conducted on its
islands and territorial waters, including plot divisions, exploration and
exploitation of oil and gas were ‘completely normal’. They were, he said, ‘in line
with Vietnamese law as well as international laws and practices, particularly the
1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and the 2002 Declaration
of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea.’52 Dzung also noted that Vietnam’s
partnership with BP dated to 2000 and ‘is within Vietnam’s exclusive economic

47Xinhua, People’s Daily Online, April 10, 2007.

48Xinhua, Beijing, April 10, 2007.

49Xinhua, People’s Daily Online, April 10, 2007; words in brackets were quoted by Reuters,
‘Vietnam stirring trouble with gas pipe plan – China’, April 10, 2007.
50Xinhua, People’s Daily Online, April 10, 2007.

51Quoted by Reuters, April 10, 2007. Qin Gang’s remarks were carried by the Shanghai Daily and
The China Daily on April 11, 2007.
52Thong Tan Xa Viet Nam, Thanh Nien, April 12, 2007.

area and continental shelf, and is within Vietnam’s sovereignty.’53 The Lan Tay-
Lan Do field has been producing natural gas for power generation since 2002.54
In April 2007, during the exchange of claims and counter-claims, Chinese naval
vessels detained four Vietnamese fishing boats near Spratly islands. And, as a
result of Chinese pressure, in June BP announced it was halting seismic work off
southern Vietnam until Sino-Vietnamese tensions subsided. Events took a turn
for the worse on July 9, 2007 when an incident occurred between a People’s
Liberation Army-Navy vessel and Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracels
resulting in the sinking of one Vietnamese boat and the death of one Vietnamese
fisherman.55 Vietnam kept silent on this issue and put a lid on news reporting.
News of this clash was broadcast by Radio Free Asia.
At the end of the year, PLAN exercises in the Paracel Islands from November 16-
23, 2007 provoked Vietnamese protests. But no action was more inflammatory
than the reported decision of the National People’s Congress to create the Sansha
county level town in Hainan province with administrative responsibility over
three archipelagoes in the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly
islands. News of the NPC’s reported actions provoked anti-China student
demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on 9th and 16th December 2007.
China immediately protested these demonstrations. After the protests subsided,
the Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in all the ASEAN ambassadors
to inform them that the protests were spontaneous and not approved.56 It
appears likely that the student demonstrations were carefully staged political
theatre. In effect, Vietnam took a leaf out of China’s play book and staged
‘spontaneous’ public demonstrations to signal its displeasure over Chinese
actions in the South China Sea. In other words, the student protests were a subtle
carefully orchestrated move that conveyed what government officials were
thinking in private but could not say in public.

53Thanh Nien, April 12, 2007.

54This area is separate from the area where the national oil companies China, the Philippines and
Vietnam are conducing joint seismic exploration; Voice of Vietnam, April 12, 2007.
55Neither China nor Vietnam has provided a public account of this incident. It is unlikely that
Vietnam People’s Army naval vessels were involved in this incident. But it is highly possible that
fishing vessels that form part of local security forces could have been involved. There is a real
grey area concerning local self-defence forces and militia. It is even more likely that armed
Vietnamese fishermen were involved. China typically embellishes incidents to suits its purposes
and its use of the expression ‘armed vessels’ is an example of such calculated ambiguity.
56According to an eyewitness, ‘I was at both [demonstrations] and the security services, if not
directly choreographing events, certainly facilitated the protests and did nothing to stop them for
an hour or so’. If the student protests were spontaneous then Vietnamese security officials have
much to be concerned about. Vietnamese students independently accessed the web to find
information that was not in the state press. Vietnamese students organized the protests to the
extent of getting matching t-shirts, slogans and then held simultaneous demonstrations in Hanoi
and Ho Chi Minh City. And finally, Vietnamese students contacted the media to garner publicity.
If students can do this on a patriotic issue, what else might they do?

Vietnamese officials were put between a rock and a hard place. In terms of public
diplomacy, China repeatedly offered to settle outstanding matters peacefully. Yet
in private China was exerting diplomatic and military pressure on Vietnam. Wu
Bangguo, whose remarks were noted above, heads the same National People’s
Congress that reportedly created the Sansha administrative district which
provoked Vietnamese student protests.
In order to diffuse growing tensions, a meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering
Committee on Cooperation was held in Beijing on January 23, 2008. The
Vietnamese delegation included Deputy Minister of Defence Nguyen Huy Hieu
who met separately with members of the Committee of Science, Technology and
Industry, Ministry of Defence.57 At the Steering Committee meeting both sides
agreed to ‘properly handle problems in bilateral relations’ through ‘dialogue and
consultations.’ Yet later that month China accused Vietnamese fishermen of
attacking Chinese trawlers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam dismissed this charge
and argued that the nets of the fishing boats had become entangled.
The extreme delicacy of the Vietnamese position was revealed in a curious
incident involving the cancellation of an official visit to Hanoi by the U.S. Deputy
Secretary of State John Negroponte in late January 2008. The State Department
made an official announcement of the trip and both Chinese and Vietnamese
state media reported that the visit would occur. Negroponte was scheduled to fly
from Beijing directly to Hanoi where a program had been arranged and
confirmed. Yet foreign journalists in Hanoi were told at short notice that the trip
was cancelled ostensibly because of bad weather. But when reporters checked
they discovered that commercial flights in and out of Beijing were unaffected.
Vietnamese officials, speaking off the record, offered the following explanation:
Negroponte’s visit was cancelled as a result of Chinese diplomatic pressure not
to become involved in a bilateral matter. Chinese officials claimed that the
Vietnamese officials would ask Negroponte for U.S. assistance in dealing with
China over South China Sea issues. Vietnamese officials also claimed that China
threatened to cancel the scheduled visit of Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem to
Beijing if Hanoi received Negroponte.
The growing friction between China and was addressed by a ‘summit meeting’
communist parties leaders who met in Beijing from May 30-June 2, 2008. A joint
statement issued after official talks between General Secretary Hu Jintao and
Secretary General Nong Duc Manh revealed that China and Vietnam had agreed
to raise relations to the level of a strategic partnership.58 The issue of the South
China Sea was barely mentioned in official media reporting of this event but
what references that did appear were revealing. Some news reporting mentioned
‘problems left over from history’ without further elaboration. A commentary in
Nhan Dan on May 30th mentioned in passing the ‘maintenance of stability in the

57Hieu expressed an interest in deepening cooperation in personnel training, frontier and coastal
defence and ‘other fields’.
58Vietnam has strategic partnerships with Russia, India and Japan and ‘strategic relations’ with
France. Vietnam and the United States have both mentioned raising their bilateral relations to the
strategic level.

East Sea’. When Hu ‘suggested a proper solution to existing issues between the
countries on the basis of friendly consultations and mutual benefit’, Manh
replied that he shared Hu’s views and that ‘the two countries should
communicate promptly about their concerns.’ The two leaders agreed to ‘foster
an effective cooperation mechanism between the foreign ministries and defence,
public and security agencies.’ The two party leaders also agreed that the most
appropriate mechanism to handle their relations was the bilateral Steering
Committee. Hu also pressed his Vietnamese counterpart to agree on a five-year
blueprint on trade cooperation.
Immediately prior to Manh’s visit to Beijing commercial satellite imagery was
released to the public confirming that China was constructing a major naval base
on Hainan Island and that major surface combatants as well as a single nuclear
submarine were stationed there. In order to fully comprehend the strategic
importance of the construction of naval base facilities at Sanya on Hainan island,
it is necessary to understand both Chinese intentions and capabilities. China has
so far refrained from providing any insights into the former.
As for capabilities, the construction of piers and docks at the base indicates that
the Sanya Naval Base is being built to accommodate large surface combatants
including assault ships and eventually aircraft carriers (China does not have
carriers at present). Construction at Hainan is being paralleled by China’s
construction of an airfield at Woody Island in the Paracel islands and
consolidation of facilities at Fiery Cross Reef and the maintenance of a continuing
naval presence at Mischief Reef both in the Spratly archipelago. China will
therefore have an enhanced capability to exercise its sovereignty claims over the
South China Sea and protect its vital Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC)
through the Malacca and Singapore Straits through which much of its energy
resources flow. By extension, China will also have the capacity to threaten these
same SLOCs on which Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are dependent. China will
acquire a capacity to surge expeditionary forces into the South China Sea and its
logistics support lines will be greatly shortened.
Other construction indicate that the Sanya naval base will have strategic
implications for the balance of power in the region. Portions of the base are being
constructed underground to provide facilities that cannot be easily monitored.
Satellite imagery has confirmed the presence of a Chinese Type 094 Jin-class
submarine since late 2007. The Type-094 submarine is a second-generation
nuclear vessel and represents China’s most lethal naval strike weapon. Five more
SSBNs could become operational by 2010 according to the U.S. Defense
An analysis of construction activities that can be viewed from satellites indicate
that this base will be capable of housing nuclear submarines capable of launching
inter continental ballistic missiles. When these facilities are completed they will
provide China with the potential capability to station a substantial proportion of
its submarine-based nuclear deterrence capabilities there. China’s most modern
strategic nuclear submarine is not yet fully operational but when it is the
submarine is expected to carry twelve Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles. This class
of submarine will be even more potent it China succeeds in equipping the
missiles with multiple warheads. Chinese nuclear subs will be able to patrol and

fire from concealed positions in deep waters off Hainan island if China can
develop the necessary operational skills. It is as yet unclear how many of its five
nuclear submarines China will base at the Sanya facility.
China’s naval modernization represents a challenge and potential threat to all of
Southeast Asia and especially Vietnam. China is the dominant regional power
when compared not only to the navies of ASEAN states but India and Australia
as well. Although China is developing niche capabilities to challenge the U.S.
Navy in contingencies involving Taiwan, the PLA-N is no match now or in the
future to the might of the U.S. 7th Fleet. China will pose a growing challenge but
for the next decade and longer the U.S. Navy will rule the waves.
7. Conclusion
This paper has traced the evolution of Vietnam’s defence policy after the
settlement of the Cambodian conflict and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to
the present. In this period Vietnam expanded its defence doctrine from
protection of national sovereignty to embrace comprehensive security.
Economics has taken pride of place and Vietnam’ armed forces have been pared
down and starved of funds. Vietnamese foreign policy was captured in such
catchy slogans as ‘multidirectional foreign policy’ and ‘making friends with all
countries.’ Vietnam achieved success after success in is quest to integrate its
economy with the global economy.
The analysis in this paper has attempted to make four major points. First, the
collapse of the Soviet Union severely undermined Vietnam’s defence
preparedness and posed a serious challenge to its leaders. Second, the end of the
Cambodian conflict ushered in a new era of regional cooperation and opened up
a major new opportunity for Vietnam in its external relations. Third, the changed
strategic context opened the door for Vietnam to engage in defence diplomacy
and enter into military cooperation programs with a diverse number of new
partners. Fourth, as a result of extensive defence diplomacy, Vietnam has been
able to initiate a limited but highly specific force modernization program with an
emphasis on system upgrades and new procurements.
Vietnam’s defence capabilties came under severe threat with the collapse of
socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-91. Quite suddenly and
unexpectedly there was a sharp decline and then termination of Soviet military
assistance. To add to Vietnam’s difficulties, the Russian Federation moved to put
military sales on a commercial basis with payment in hard currency. At the same
time, Vietnam ‘s domestic economic circumstances resulted in less budgetary
funding for the Vietnam People’s Army than the military expected.
Vietnam therefore confronted an immediate strategic dilemma. If it did not act
quickly, its existing stocks of military weapons and equipment would continue
to deteriorate. Vietnam was particularly concerned about the mainstay of its air
force, the MiG-21, its air defence systems and its ability to project naval forces
into the South China Sea. Without access to new weapons platforms and systems
Vietnam would not be able to continue modernizing its forces. Vietnamese
military leaders closely followed the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and drew the
conclusion that they had no choice but to modernize. In 1992, Chinese

occupation of features in the South Sea set off a ‘scramble for the Spratlys’ and
opened a new maritime dimension for Vietnamese military planners.
Given these circumstances, Vietnamese political and military leaders gave
priority to preventing the further deterioration of its stock of military weapons
and equipment. Vietnam sought out sources of spare parts and foreign assistance
to maintain, refurbish and upgrade its defence equipment inventory. According
to one foreign observer, between sixty to seventy percent of Vietnam’s military
stocks were obsolete at that time. As a second priority, Vietnam sought access to
relevant modern military technology and its transfer to Vietnam’s own national
defence industry through joint ventures and co-production. In trying to attain
these twin objectives – maintenance and modernization – Vietnam was
constrained by cost, compatibility and U.S. national security trade restrictions.
Because Vietnam’s military was equipped with Soviet-designed equipment,
Vietnam first had to negotiate affordable commercial contracts with Russian state
arms manufacturers. The break up of the Soviet Union opened up alternate
sources of Soviet-era equipment. Due to continual pricing difficulties with
Russian authorities, Vietnam turned to the Ukraine and established strong
defence industry and arms procurement relations. The Ukraine perhaps has
emerged as the major competitor to the Russian Federation for arms sales to
Vietnam. Additionally, Vietnam sought out opportunities among the states of the
former Warsaw Pact, most notably Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland
and Slovakia.
The strategic dimension of Vietnam’s defence diplomacy improved dramatically
following Vietnam’s military withdrawal from Cambodia and the political
settlement of the conflict in 1991. Vietnam now became a more ‘normal’ state in
international relations. These changed strategic circumstances enabled Vietnam
to extend its quest for military modernization to Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia,
Europe and beyond. But cost always remained the constraining factor.
Vietnam’s military diplomacy serves multiple purposes but its primary objective
is to enhance the national security of the state. In addition to arms sales and
servicing agreements, Vietnam has sought to enhance its national security by:
exchanges of high-level delegations, goodwill and protocol visits, strategic
dialogue, joint naval patrols and exercises, and a variety of defence cooperation
activities (military training and education, language instruction, technology
transfer, medical research, de-mining and ordnance disposal, search and rescue,
and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief).
It is notable that the greatest density of Vietnam’s defence relationships are with
its immediate neighbours – Laos, China, Thailand, the Philippines Cambodia and
Indonesia. Vietnam first had to normalize its relations with former adversaries
during the Cambodian conflict. Both sides had to build a measure of confidence
if not trust in order to move from confrontation to cooperation. The opening of
regional defence contacts, especially in the yearly 1990s, pre-dated Vietnam’s
official membership in ASEAN. The year 1994 marks the real commencement of
defence diplomacy by Vietnam.
Defence diplomacy resulted in enhanced border security on land and in
maritime areas where there are overlapping territorial claims. Defence

cooperation with Laos and Cambodia has also focused on the repatriation of the
remains of Vietnamese soldiers who died during the Indochina wars. China and
Vietnam have cooperated in removing mines from their frontier and are now in
the process of completing the physical demarcation of the borderline. India
represents something of a special case because of its direct experience with
Soviet–era weapons and technology of relevance to Vietnam.
A close look at Vietnamese arms procurements, especially its purchase of Su-27
and Su-30 fighter-bomber aircraft and fast attack craft armed with surface-to-
surface missiles, reveals a major concern over contingencies in the South China
Sea related to China’s naval presence. The development of defence relations with
India and the United States reinforces the perception among some strategic
analysts that Vietnam may be trying to balance against a rising China.
This paper also presented a case study of Vietnam’s relations with China and
argued that there is an emerging contradiction between Vietnam’s foreign and
defence policies. Vietnam seeks to leverage its external relations with China in
order to boost economic development, yet Vietnamese plans to develop its
maritime zone in the South China Sea has provoked a Chinese counter-reaction
designed to scuttle this initiative. Vietnam now faces a significant challenge to its
national sovereignty. This paper argues there are signs that Vietnam is gradually
developing a modest deterrent capacity in the South China Sea and employing
defence diplomacy in order to bolster its negotiating position vis-à-vis China.
Much writing about Vietnam’s foreign policy sits uncomfortably with the
analysis presented in this paper because scholars have largely neglected the
strategic dimension of Vietnam’s defence diplomacy. The Vietnam People’s
Army is a major constituent in Vietnam’s political system and is an increasingly
prominent diplomatic actor regionally and globally. The pattern of Vietnam’s
arms procurements and Vietnamese concern with border security and territorial
integrity – that by their very nature involve realpolitik considerations – cannot be
squared with approaches that stresses cooperative norm building and identity

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