South China Morning Post
December 17, 2009 Thursday

Vietnam buys submarines to counter China
Hanoi seals arms deal with Moscow amid China's naval build-up, and cosies up to US Defence

Greg Torode, chief Asia correspondent and Minnie Chan


China faces the prospect of a new, rival submarine power in the disputed South China Sea, with neighbouring Vietnam yesterday completing a major arms deal with Russia - the latest sign of regional concern at Beijing's naval build-up.

The deal for submarines and jet fighters - Hanoi's biggest since the end of the Vietnam war 35 years ago - also reflects a widening view in the region that Beijing's vaunted show of soft power in the past decade is taking on a harder edge.

It comes as Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia seek to expand submarine programmes amid concerns that the US will gradually see its traditional naval dominance and influence across East Asia eroded by China's naval expansion.

In buying six Russian-made Kilo submarines for US$2 billion, Vietnam is also effectively cementing a new military relationship with Moscow, its major cold war benefactor following the collapse in ties with one-time ally Beijing.

With Moscow committing to deliver one submarine a year for the next six years, Russian specialists are expected to be involved in training, outfitting and maintenance programmes, Asian diplomats scrutinising the deal said.

India, China's neighbour and rival power, also possesses Russian Kilos and has been quietly advising Hanoi on the challenges of building a submarine-capable force.

Vietnam is also forging a military relationship with its former enemy, the US, whose navy has upped its presence in the South China Sea.

The diesel-electric Kilo submarines are considered to be among the quietest available - exceptionally stealthy vessels that can be used for spying as well as hunting and attacking rival ships and submarines.

Building a working submarine programme will be a major challenge for Vietnam's military, a traditionally land-based force.

Professor Carl Thayer, a veteran specialist on the Vietnamese military at Australia's Defence Force Academy, said just as China was seeking to create a naval deterrent against the larger US forces, Vietnam was seeking a credible deterrent against China, hoping to defend its own claims to the South China Sea.

"It's a very bold step," Thayer said. "It has been apparent for some time now that Vietnam's sovereignty is under threat in the South China Sea, and that is something that is painfully felt in Hanoi.

"Hanoi knows it could never hope to match the Chinese navy, but it can at least make them think very hard before any attempt to, for example, drive Vietnam off some of their Spratly Islands holdings. Even a few Kilos makes that a very complicated business, indeed you suddenly have to factor in losing ships."

Retired PLA general Xu Guangyu said the move was expected. "It is not a surprise or a threat to China," he said. "Vietnam has a long coastline and we understand they need to upgrade their naval fleet. Maybe they feel urgency because of our own modernisation programme. And I won't be surprised if other countries also start to upgrade their naval fleets. Most navies in the region need to upgrade themselves and it's all perfectly understandable."

He said rivalry was inevitable anywhere, "but we should not play up the rivalries". "The PLA Navy is also undergoing rapid modernisation. We don't feel threatened by our neighbours," Xu said.

Long-simmering tensions over rival claims by China and Vietnam in the South China Sea have worsened in the past two years, with China completing an underground submarine base on Hainan Island and legally formalising its so-called historic claim to nearly the entire sea.

Both sides repeatedly insist on the need for a peaceful, negotiated settlement, but there is little expectation of a diplomatic breakthrough soon.

China has some of its own Kilo submarines at the Sanya base on Hainan, which is also expected to be home to an expanding fleet of larger, nuclear-powered and -armed ballistic missile submarines - a factor behind the increase in US patrols and surveillance of the area.

While six nations have claims in the South China Sea, only Vietnam and China claim all of the strategic Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. Taiwan's claims match those of Beijing, which holds all of the Paracels after driving off the then-South Vietnamese navy in the closing days of the Vietnam war in 1974. Vietnam, meanwhile, occupies the most islands in the Spratlys grouping.

The islands straddle vital sea lanes linking East Asia with the Middle East and Europe, and also sit above a seabed considered rich in oil and gas deposits. Beijing has repeatedly warned Vietnam and the Philippines against continuing oil exploration deals with overseas firms.

As tensions rise, Vietnam has been quietly attempting to internationalise the issue - a move reflected in the latest deal with Russia and growing ties with the US.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung confirmed the deal between his Defence Ministry and Russia's state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport after a signing ceremony with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

"Vietnam signed a contract for the purchase of submarines, planes and military equipment with the corresponding co-operation of the Russian side," he told Agence France-Presse news agency.

Full details have yet to emerge but, as well as the submarines, Vietnam is reported to have ordered 12 Sukhoi Su-30MK2 jet fighters on top of eight to be delivered next year.

The two sides also agreed to a deal for the construction of Vietnam's first nuclear power plant.

People in the Russian defence industry said talks were still under way involving helicopters and frigates. Russia has been a traditional source of ships for Vietnam's naval modernisation, but no previous deal has matched the scale of this one.

Until now, Vietnam's only other submarines have been two used mini-subs obtained from North Korea in the late 1990s.

While Dung visited Moscow, Vietnamese Defence Minister Lieutenant General Phung Quang Thanh was in Washington for a rare visit to meet his US counterpart, Dr Robert Gates.

The visit is expected to accelerate agreements allowing repairs and resupply of any visiting US naval ships, and possible sales of military equipment between the former enemies.

Pentagon officials said Hanoi's reluctance to building a stronger military relationship had lessened considerably over the past year. This year Vietnamese military officials were flown out of an airport in Ho Chi Minh City and landed on a US aircraft carrier.

"It used to be us pushing them to move forward ? now it is the other way around," one official said. "There is a desire that it is time to rebalance Vietnam's international relationship a little more in our direction."

The issue of "balancing" China's rise is one of the hottest topics in the staterooms of the region. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's minister mentor, captured the mood of many in the region in October when he questioned the transparency of China's military build-up and urged US engagement.

The US risked losing global leadership if it did not "balance" China's rise, he said. "The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 or 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance."