Vietnam says the recent Reuters report on its alleged deployment of rocket launchers to its bases in the Spratly islands is inaccurate. Even if it had done so, such an act only reflects Vietnam’s peace and self-defense policy. It does not want to target any other country. China, on the other hand, talks about “people’s war at sea” and giving disputed countries a “bloody nose”. A state media report warned Hanoi to draw lessons from history. China’s rejection of a recent international court ruling on its South China Sea claims and its increasing aggression there is prompting Vietnam to defend itself against any military action.

 A Reuters report on August 10 suggested that “Vietnam has discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with new mobile rocket launchers” in recent months.

Vietnam Navy patrol in Changsha
Vietnam Navy patrol in Changsha

However, as reported by Reuters, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said the information about the deployment of the rocket launchers, which was based on unnamed Western officials, was “inaccurate.”

Moreover, there exists no satellite photograph nor other evidence indicating that Vietnam sent the rocket launchers to its bases in the Spratly islands.

Even if it had made such a move – or will make any similar attempt in the future – that is mainly a defensive act and a reaction to China’s action in the South China Sea.

Hanoi has always strongly insisted on the resolution of the maritime disputes by peaceful means, on the basis of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Peaceful resolution of disputes

In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Asia-Pacific’s largest security forum, in Singapore in 2012, Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s then Prime Minister, said “Vietnam’s defense policy is that of peace and self-defense.”

To illustrate this, Dung pointed out, “In past years, sustained high economic growth has enabled Vietnam to increase its national defense budget at a reasonable level but lower than that of economic growth. Vietnam’s army modernization is only for self-defense and the safeguard of our legitimate interests. It does not, in any way, target any other country.”

With regard to regional security issues, such as the South China Sea disputes, he said: “Vietnam adheres to the principle of peaceful dispute settlement on the basis of international law … All parties concerned need to exercise self-restraint and must not resort to force or threat to use force.”

This policy was reiterated by Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam’s deputy Defense Minister, four years later. In his remark at the 15th SLD three months ago, the Senior Lieutenant General called for “an absolute restraint from the use of force or the threat to use force” in dealing with disputes.

He also stressed that Vietnam approached the South China Sea disputes “first and foremost by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.”

In a response to Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan’s recent call to military, police and public to prepare for a “people’s war at sea”, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said “disputes in the waters must be resolved peacefully on the basis of international law, and without use of or threat to use force.”

This reveals the opposing views of the two countries. While Beijing is prepared and willing to use force, Hanoi is opposed such a military approach.

In fact, both at home and abroad, privately and publicly, no Vietnamese official has so far made a provocative statement, such as Chinese officials’ incitement for a “people’s war at sea” against other disputed countries or to “give them a bloody nose”.

China’s aggression is manifested not only in its rhetoric but also in its actions on the ground in the South China Sea.

Its full-scale militarization of the South China Sea has been widely reported and evidenced. This includes deploying surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets to Woody Island in the Paracels, which is also claimed by Vietnam.

China has also built runways, radar stations and other military installations on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratlys. Moreover, the latest satellite photographs show it has constructed reinforced hangars at these three disputed territories.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts.” However, the Washington-based center contends, given the rapid construction of theses hangars, which can easily accommodate any fighter-jet in Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, including the J-11 and Su-30, “this is likely to change.”

In contrast, besides the deployment suggested by Reuters, Vietnam has not embarked on any similar military move in the South China Sea.

“Countering China’s build-up”?

Chinese media reacted quickly and vividly to the Reuters report on Vietnam’s deployment of the rocket launchers.

On August 11, the Global Times, a subsidiary of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, had a piece titled: “Restraint crucial to avoid new crisis in South China Sea.”

Indeed, as stressed by the recent ministerial meetings of ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum in Laos, it is crucial that the parties concerned have to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions” that “could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

Nonetheless, judging by the recent developments, the first country that must restrain from being confrontational and aggressive in the in the South China Sea is China, not Vietnam.

As said in the Reuters report, Vietnam’s deployment – if proved to be – “is designed to counter China’s build-up on its seven reclaimed islands in the Spratlys archipelago.”

In its piece, the Global Times, a media outlet with a nationalist view, warned: “If Vietnam’s latest deployment is targeting China, that would be a terrible mistake. We hope Vietnam will remember and draw some lessons from history.”

As Vietnam’s former Prime Minister explicitly stated in 2012, Vietnam “does not, in any way, target any other country.”

In fact, past and current history shows it is always China that waged war on Vietnam, not the other way round. The first Chinese invasion of its southern neighbor could date back to the second century BC, when Emperor Qin Shi Huang expanded his newly united China into the northern part of Vietnam.

China’s last major war on its smaller southern neighbor was in 1979, when the former launched a massive invasion of the latter’s northern provinces. By asking Vietnam to “draw some lessons from history”, the Global Times may refer to this border war because China’s then leader Deng Xiaoping ordered to invade Vietnam in order to teach it “a lesson.”

In the South China Sea, China also launched two armed attacks on Vietnam. In 1974, it invaded the Paracel Islands, which had been held by the then US-backed South Vietnam. This brief clash resulted in the death of more than 70 South Vietnamese soldiers and China’s complete occupation of the island chain ever since.

History repeated itself 14 years later. In 1988, Chinese forces carried out an assault on Johnson South Reef, which was then under Vietnamese control, in the Spratly Islands. In the aftermath of the battle, during which two Vietnamese ships were sank and 64 Vietnamese sailors killed, China took its first six holdings in the Spratlys. Some of these have been recently militarized.

“Some lessons from history”?

These wars and attacks remain strong in Vietnam’s memory. Perhaps, there is no need for the Global Times and the likes to remind it to “draw some lessons from history.”

In his remark at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Nguyen Chi Vinh said that throughout its history, Vietnam experienced many wars and though they become the past, the country and its people are struggling to cope with their pro-longed and serious consequences. Because of this, the Vietnamese people have a strong desire for a long-lasting peace, which he regards as “the highest objective” that the country always aims for.

Yet, China’s thousand-year domination of Vietnam, Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 “lesson” and the two naval defeats it suffered in 1974 and 1985 have taught it that it needs to prepare to defend itself from any similar adventurism.

“Vietnam’s defense policy” underlined by Nguyen Tan Dung four years ago remains its South China Sea policy today. Such a “peace and self-defense” policy has not changed regardless of whether it has actually “shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into position on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months” as reported by Reuters.

It can be said that any move Vietnam has taken or will take in the South China Sea is “only for self-defense and the safeguard of [its] legitimate interests.”

Any military-related move by Vietnam, however legitimate it is, will likely become the reason – even the pretext – for Beijing to further step up its militarization in the disputed waters. This will further escalate tensions in the region.

However, faced with China’s strident rejection of the ruling by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration and its increasing aggression in the South China, it is strategically unwise for Vietnam – and other claimant states – not to prepare to deter or defend itself against China’s military actions.

As illustrated by the Paracels battle in 1974, the Spratlys clash in 1988 and the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, if they are unaware and unprepared, it is likely that they will suffer similar costly defeats.

Together with Defense Minister Chang Wanquan’s call “for substantial preparation for a people’s war at sea”, China held a large-scale naval exercise at the beginning of this month.

As reported by its state-run media, this live-ammunition drill, which involved “firing dozens of missiles and torpedoes” and “naval aviation forces, including submarines, ships and coastguard troops”, was aimed “at honing the assault intensity, precision, stability and speed of troops” and practising for “an information technology-based war at sea” that “is sudden, cruel and short.”

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK, in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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