Vietnam's Security: Challenges and Responses

Tomotaka Shoji
Head, Asia and Africa Division, Regional Studies Department, National Institute for Defense Studies

This paper is intended to discuss Vietnam's security perceptions, security challenges, and responses to those challenges. Among the security challenges that Vietnam is currently facing, the most significant, serious one are territorial disputes in the South China Sea, particularly those with China. However, Vietnam's security challenges are not confined to the South China Sea issue. Its political leadership is fully aware of the significance of non-traditional challenges such as the economy, food, climate change, and environmental problems, and is attempting to address them. This paper will discuss how the Vietnamese political leadership perceives the country's security, challenges that their perceptions highlight, and how they are dealing with them.

1. Vietnam's Security Perceptions

A political report at the 13th Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam held in January 2021 summarized the security environment surrounding Vietnam. The global strategic environment, the report says, is becoming more complex due to the intensifying strategic competition among major powers, including the United States and China, while international institutions such as international law and multilateral frameworks are also facing difficulties. This situation is accelerating due to the global spread of COVID-19. Global non-traditional challenges such as human security, natural disasters, epidemics, cyber, climate change, rising sea levels, and environmental pollution are also increasing in seriousness. In the Asia-Pacific region, competition among major powers is intensifying; the issues of territorial and maritime sovereignty associated, among others, with the South China Sea, are becoming more serious, posing the risk of military conflicts. 1 The report shows that while Vietnam's political leadership emphasizes traditional security issues such as the US-China confrontation and the South China Sea issue, it also pays keen interest in non-traditional challenges related, in particular, to the environment.

Vietnam's security perceptions as noted above stem from basic foreign and security policies formulated when the country initiated the Doi Moi policy (economic development through the introduction of a market economy and an opening-up) in the mid-1980s. In terms of foreign policy, Vietnam has been promoting omnidirectional diplomacy since Doi Moi, which aimed at ensuring an external environment conducive to economic development by establishing stable, cooperative relationships with all countries.

With the omnidirectional nature of its external relations as a prerequisite, Vietnam recognizes its security challenges from the perspective of "comprehensive security." Vietnam's comprehensive security perspective does not confine itself to the means of national security to military power but also emphasizes economic power. In that perspective, economic power is the determining factor of national power; along with economic power and military power, the other condition for guaranteeing national security is to expand cooperative external relations. According to this idea, along with the development of the overall national power, the amelioration of the external environment by utilizing international and regional cooperation mechanisms, in which Vietnam participates, will also play a vital role in its security policy. 2 In the light of the country's comprehensive security, the security interests and challenges Vietnam should pursue will range from traditional ones associated with territorial land and waters to non-traditional ones such as the economy, natural disasters, and the environment.

A cardinal strategic concept in Vietnam's security based on the omnidirectional nature of its external relations and the diversity of its security challenges is the binary opposites of "cooperation target" (đối tác) and "struggle target" (đối tượng). They appeared first in the "Strategy of Fatherland Defense in a New Situation" adopted at the Eighth Plenum of the Ninth Party Central Committee in July 2003 and again in the new "Strategy of Fatherland Defense in a New Situation" adopted by the Eighth Plenum of the Eleventh Party Central Committee ten years later in October 2013. The idea of "cooperation target" and "struggle target" does not define a country as a friend or foe but finds both sides of cooperation and struggle of that country. 3

For example, China is a "struggle target" for Vietnam over territorial rights in the South China Sea; it is, at the same time, a "cooperation target" for Vietnam to safeguard the economy and political system. Likewise, the United States is a "cooperation target" in security and economic areas. On the other hand, there are political disagreements between the United States and Vietnam over human rights and religious freedom. The Vietnamese political leadership is not free from concern about "peaceful evolution," by exploiting which the United States and other "Western powers" might attempt to overthrow Vietnam's political system from within in peacetime. For this reason, the United States is a "struggle target" for Vietnam on the political front. To effectively address the multifaceted security challenges facing Vietnam, the country must adopt an omnidirectional, flexible foreign policy. The idea of "cooperation target" and "struggle target" are instrumental to realize such policies.

2. Vietnam's Security Challenges

(1) The South China Sea Issue

The territorial disputes between Vietnam and China, primarily over the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, became acute in the 1970s. After that, the situation calmed down in the early 2000s, but around 2010, China's expansion into the area once more became active, and the bilateral territorial disputes flared up again. A series of incidents ensued in which the China Coast Guard patrol vessels captured Vietnamese fishing boats operating near the Paracel Islands. Furthermore, an incident in which a Vietnamese resource exploration vessel had its cables disrupted by Chinese authorities turned into a grave security problem for Vietnam.

Initially, Vietnam tried to handle the problem by building trust with China through various channels. Vietnam's efforts culminated in an "Agreement on Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement of Sea-related Issues between Viet Nam and China" in 2011. 4 However, Vietnam's efforts were frustrated by a China-Vietnam oil rig standoff in 2014. In early May of the same year, China installed an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and began drilling operations scheduled to last until August. Vietnam considered this as China's efforts to strengthen control over the Paracel Islands and vehemently opposed and resisted China's behavior by dispatching maritime police vessels to the spot to protest. 5

In mid-July, China withdrew the oil rig, announcing that the work had finished and the situation was settled. Nonetheless, the oil rig incident made Vietnam aware of the limits of its ability to manage its relations with China. Vietnam realized that it would be difficult to maintain political trust in China and that whatever efforts to stabilize relations with China would not prevent it from unilaterally infringing on Vietnam's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests. In the aftermath of the incident, Vietnam endeavored to solidify its omnidirectional security cooperation through strengthening cooperation with countries such as the United States, Japan, and India, while at the same time continuing efforts to restore and stabilize relations with China. 6 However, due to China's reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, it has become increasingly difficult for Vietnam to exploit natural resources in the waters within its exclusive economic zone.

(2) Maintenance of the Communist Party Regime

The maintenance of the political system of a one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party of Vietnam is the supreme priority for the Vietnamese political leadership. They have been vigilant about "peaceful revolution" (diễn biến hòa bình in Vietnamese) as a threat that US-led "imperialist" conspirators might overthrow Vietnam's current political system through peaceful means instead of the direct use of military force. 7 More than a quarter of a century has passed since the end of the Cold War, and US-Vietnam relations have made significant progress. Nonetheless, the "peaceful revolution" remains a critical security issue for the Vietnamese political leadership.

To maintain the current Communist Party regime, Vietnamese people's trust in the party is indispensable. In this sense, Vietnam's political leadership is under pressure to improve Vietnamese citizens' living standards through continued economic development while at the same time responding appropriately on time to various problems (wealth disparity, environmental issues, corruption, etc.) that accompany economic development.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese political leadership faces the difficult task of controlling nationalism. Vietnam's nationalism is closely related to anti-China sentiment. In recent years, especially against the backdrop of tensions with China in the South China Sea, the nationalism issue has often come to the fore whenever China-involved incidents happen. The Communist Party and the political leadership confront the challenge of "appropriately" "controlling" nationalism not to allow Vietnamese anti-China sentiment to turn into an anti-regime one.

(3) Non-Traditional Threats and Environmental Problems in the Mekong Delta

In recent years, the volume of water in the Mekong River has been declining, and as a result, rice production in the lower reaches of the Mekong Delta is also on the decrease. This poses to the country not only a grave food security problem but also an economic security problem because rice is one of Vietnam's principal exports. Many people believe that the decrease in water volume is due to the successive construction of water-storage dams upstream of the Mekong River in China and Laos. The deterioration of water quality in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta caused by the backflow of seawater is a problem allegedly attributable to the rise in sea level due to global warming, as well as to the decrease in water volume in the Mekong. Furthermore, infectious diseases like COVID-19 are also considered a critical non-traditional security issue.

3. Vietnam's Responses

Vietnam confronts various security challenges, but its basic policy in dealing with them is omnidirectional foreign cooperation. In particular, Vietnam's responses to the South China Sea issue can be summarized as "omnidirectional security cooperation" or a peaceful means of building and developing security cooperation with every country. Based on the omnidirectional nature of security cooperation, this policy seeks to secure its own strategic space while at the same time pursuing stability in the strategic environment not only for bilateral relations but for the region as a whole through confidence building among military and other security-related institutions. 8

Vietnam's omnidirectional security cooperation stands on two equilibria. The first is the equilibrium between strategic interests. Undoubtedly, sovereignty and territorial integrity, represented by territorial rights in the South China Sea, are Vietnam's primary strategic interests. As mentioned in the previous section, however, Vietnam (and its political leadership) has other strategic interests as well, as vital as the South China Sea, such as economic development and the protection of the Communist Party's one-party dictatorship. In this sense, it would be inappropriate to sacrifice one of these interests to protect another.

The second equilibrium on which the omnidirectional security cooperation relies is the equilibrium between external relations: the 2013 "Strategy of Fatherland Defense in a New Situation" stipulates as one of its political leadership's missions the creation of a favorable international environment for Vietnam's security through the balanced, omnidirectional establishment of independent, voluntary, and proactive external relations. 9 The 2013 strategy emphasizes the importance of omnidirectionality in security strategy or that of building balanced external relations.

Omnidirectional security cooperation that Vietnam is advancing seeks to improve not only bilateral relations but also the regional strategic environment by building confidence through cooperation mainly in the area of non-traditional security. It aims to deepen cooperation with the United States and other countries in the region to prevent China's influence from reaching Vietnam unilaterally and to raise hurdles as high as possible against China's infringement on Vietnamese strategic interests. From the perspective of reducing China's infringement on Vietnamese interests, it will be also important not to provoke China but to also maintain and strengthen stable relations with it. 10

As for concrete modes of omnidirectional security cooperation, for example, Vietnam is carefully and gradually expanding cooperation with the United States by conducting projects like regular strategic dialogues, joint exercises with the US Navy, and the accommodation of US naval vessels at its ports. 11 From leading countries outside the region such as Japan, India, and Russia, Vietnam receives support in specific areas --- capacity building, training and equipment maintenance, and equipment procurement. 12 Regarding the Mekong issue, Vietnam is seeking to address it within the ASEAN framework.

In November 2019, Vietnam's Ministry of National Defense released its latest defense white paper, "2019 Viet Nam National Defense." The document describes Vietnam's security perceptions as follows:

Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia, continues to be a centre for dynamic development and occupies an increasingly important geo-economic, geo-political, and geo-strategic location. Recently, the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed drastic changes characterised by dialogues for peace, exerting a positive influence on stability and development in the region. Some new initiatives such as the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy", "Belt and Road Initiative", and "Act East Policy" capture the attention of many countries. Against this backdrop, the region still remains the ground for major powers' rivalry and influence intensification, harbouring destabilising elements, traditionally and non-traditionally alike. 13

Here Vietnam notes the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" promoted by Japan and the United States and India's "Act East" policy, along with the "Belt and Road" initiative. Amid fierce competition among great powers, Vietnam is trying to maintain a subtle balance between different visions without adhering to any single one. This well reflects the omnidirectional nature of Vietnam's pursuit of foreign relations.

Regarding the South China Sea (Vietnam calls it the "East Sea"), the Vietnamese defense white paper states as follows:

Despite some recent positive developments in the East Sea situation, factors that potentially cause instability and tension still exist and evolve in a complex manner. This reality is posing new challenges to the protection of sovereignty, territory, peace, and stability of Viet Nam. New developments in the East Sea, including unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violations of international law, militarisation, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Viet Nam's sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law, have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. Additionally, strategic rivalries between major powers have become increasingly acute, sometimes turning the East Sea into a "flash point", potentially leading to conflict. 14

Without mentioning its name, the document strongly criticizes China's militarization of the South China Sea islands and other activities, expressing Vietnam's sense of vigilance and crisis about the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea as one of the focal points of the US-China confrontation.

Based on this understanding of the current situation, what national defense policy should Vietnam adopt? The "2019 Viet Nam National Defense" argues for a peaceful solution to the problem as follows:

Viet Nam resolutely and consistently protects sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over its waters as provided in international law. Viet Nam upholds the "Agreement on the Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement of Sea-Related Issues" between Viet Nam and China. It continues to implement the DOC comprehensively and effectively. Viet Nam and ASEAN strive for an early conclusion of the COC with China. Viet Nam appeals to the parties concerned to keep disputes under control and take no actions that complicate the situation or expand disputes so as to preserve peace and stability in the East Sea. 15

Thus, Vietnam has decided on the above policy measures from the experience of going through the vicissitudes of the South China Sea situation over the past decade. Well aware of the implications for its security of China's military rise and the fierce US-China confrontation, Vietnam has assessed its position and concluded that the only way to turn the situation around and to eventually solve the South China Sea issue is through peaceful means over a long time.

However, the pursuit of peaceful means is subject to the following reservations:

Depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries on the basis of respecting each other's independence, sovereignty, territorial unity and integrity as well as fundamental principles of international law, cooperation for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community. 16

While emphasizing peaceful solutions to issues related to its national defense, Vietnam never compromises over territorial issues on land and at sea while only suggesting more advanced military cooperation --- as a last resort, though.

Vietnam's security challenges are not limited to those that can be resolved by military means; there are only a limited number of situations in which Vietnam can use military means. What Vietnam relies on and makes heavy use of is bilateral-multilateral cooperation with other countries. However, military alliances and similar forms of cooperation are not optional for Vietnam. What Vietnam pursues is balanced foreign relations and security cooperation.

This paper examined Vietnam's security perceptions, its security challenges, and its responses to those challenges. The security challenges that Vietnam is currently facing are not limited to the South China Sea issue but include non-traditional challenges such as the economy, food, climate change, and environmental issues, especially the Mekong issue. It is noteworthy that omnidirectional external cooperation is pivotal for Vietnam to address whatever security issues, traditional and non-traditional.

(The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of his affiliated organization.)

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