Vietnam seeks to secure its role as a key player in the Indo-Pacific by leveraging the region’s thirst for modern defence capabilities. Its rapidly expanding military makes it an attractive ally to states, such as India, which are also actively seeking to disrupt the prevailing power balance in the region.
Over the past decade, the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) has undergone a dramatic increase in its defence capabilities. The modernisation of all facets of the VPA—the navy, the air force and ground forces—is enabling a change in Vietnam’s role in the Indo-Pacific region.
Vietnam’s position as a littoral state of the South China Sea and as a border-state to China makes it an important geostrategic partner to have. It also sits west of the epicentre of one of the region’s most important power balances: between the US and China. This makes it one of only a few states in both a geographic and strategic position to ally with large states in the western Indo-Pacific, and with the capacity to disturb this epicentre.
Vietnam’s defence development has been extraordinary. It has engineered the fastest on-boarding of military hardware in the region’s history. According to SIPRI data, its military expenditure has increased 148% between 2005 and 2015. In terms of maritime capabilities, Vietnam now has the most advanced submarine fleet in the region.
The navy remains the focus of Vietnam’s development. It’s a key element of the state’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea and its efforts to mitigate China’s defiant territorial grabs. As China continues to develop its maritime capabilities, naval power has come to be a key metric for determining each state’s position in the region’s power balance.
Vietnam’s demonstrated willingness to expand its military capabilities and its staunch position in favour of freedom of navigation in the contested waters of the South China Sea make it an attractive strategic partner for states that do not prescribe to China’s regional strategic plan. Vietnam’s turbulent history with both China and the US means that it does not hold entrenched alliances with either of the great powers. China’s continuing aggressive actions aimed at securing its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the recent election of the unpredictable Donald Trump in the US will only serve to increase Vietnam’s sense of independence in determining its friends in the Indo-Pacific. Other key regional players are swiftly taking advantage of this, including India.
India has been shifting its active diplomacy eastward, taking advantage of the wealth of opportunity presented by the rapidly growing and densely populated middle powers, seeking to find common ground with states wishing to mitigate China’s territorial grabs. This shift is the product of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, which seeks to foster more active engagement between India and its neighbours in the Indo-Pacific.
Modi visited Vietnam in early September 2016. The two states concluded 12 agreements directed at facilitating deeper cooperation in areas ranging from trade to space imagery and defence. Modi’s continued commitment to helping ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and to promoting stability through cooperation and shared development was received warmly by high-level officials in Vietnam, including the General-Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong.
The relationship between Vietnam and India has important implications for great power interactions in the region. If India is able to secure its diverse relationship with Vietnam in the long-term, it will be taking an important step towards drawing the epicentre of one of the region’s most important power balances away from China and the US. Vietnam, recognising the geostrategic power it has the potential to develop, is continuing its path to securing the biggest guns in the sea.
Harriet Goers is currently studying a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney. She is completing her honours thesis exploring key players’ strategic interests in the South China Sea dispute.