Its recent history has been characterized by peaceful relations with the rest of the world as the country continues to enjoy rapid economic growth, but Vietnam’s security concerns are never far from the surface. The surface in question is that of the South China Sea, which laps at a low-lying collection of small islands, rocks and reefs that are the cause of two separate but significant disputes with a number of neighbouring nations, but principally China.
Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, which the nation says it has occupied since the 17th century, while the more northerly Paracel Islands remain contested, despite China’s naval forces inflicting defeat on their Vietnamese counterparts in a 1974 battle. In 2012, Vietnam passed a law declaring sovereignty and jurisdiction over both island groups; last March, the Hanoi government demanded compensation from China after claiming a PRC vessel fired on a Vietnamese shipping boat near the Paracels.
Fueling both disputes is the presence of significant amounts of oil and natural gas deposits. Successful claims would also have implications for ownership of territorial waters, and therefore to fishing rights – and it is this latter issue which may become the more pressing concern.
Last month, new rules were enacted, compelling non-Chinese fishing vessels to gain approval from Beijing to operate in the parts of the South China Sea that the People’s Republic claims as being under its jurisdiction. This includes both the Spratlys and the Paracels. Vietnam’s foreign ministry called Chinese moves “illegal and invalid,” while objections have also been raised by the Philippines, Taiwan, Malisa and Brunei. The United States described the Chinese regulations as “provocative and potentially dangerous.”
Vietnam’s navy has been the principal beneficiary of this developing situation. In 2009 the nation ordered a fleet of six 3,000-tonne Russian-built Kilo-class submarines; the first of these, Hanoi, arrived last month, with the second expected in May. Construction has begun at the Zelenodolsk shipyard in Russia on two new Gepard Class anti-submarine frigates. Meanwhile, a contract signed in August will see the Air Force’s fleet of Sukhoi SU-30s rise to 32 aircraft once the last of the latest order of 12 is delivered next year.