December 31, 2009
In his December 22, 2009 speech on the eve of Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) Day, President Nguyen Minh Triet urged the Army to develop defence industry, improve tactical skills and upgrade weaponry to counter the high-tech weaponry and enhanced military strength of Vietnam’s enemies. Though no particular reference was made to China, the underlying theme was the need to counter the increasing assertion of Vietnam’s bigger neighbour. This was a stark departure from the posture adopted in the defence white paper released two weeks earlier.
Vietnam’s third national defence white paper (the first two were released in 1998 and 2004 respectively) shows its commitment to greater transparency in defence modernization and strategic planning. It clearly articulates the priorities for Vietnam but is quite restrained with regard to outlining policy and strategic plans for the future. The foreword by Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh categorically states that
“on the basis of the thorough grasp of the party and the state's guidelines of independence, self-reliance, peace, cooperation and development in external affairs and the foreign policy of openness, multilateralization and diversification in international relations, the Vietnamese people’s army should enhance defence diplomatic activities; expand and consolidate ties and cooperation with all countries (first and foremost with neighbouring and regional ones, and other major partners etc.), and conduct deepened, effective, stable, sustainable , mutually confident international relations that contribute to the successful implementation of the party and state's foreign policy, and meet the needs of building the Vietnamese People Army (VPA) under new conditions.”.1
The white paper makes only an indirect reference to China on the issue of military strategy, galloping defence expenditure, advanced weapon systems and technologies. It also lays emphasis on the increasing gap in defence capabilities between the major powers and developing countries. The white paper also discusses the issue of natural disasters and non-traditional threats in general.
The 155 page document is divided into four sections. The first section deals with the security situation and configuring the national defence policy. The white paper lists the country’s major achievements in terms of demarcating the land borders and the settlement of maritime borders with China in the Gulf of Tonkin. However, subsequent passages refer to Vietnam’s sovereignty over and security concerns in the South China Sea. The paper cautiously asserts Vietnam’s sovereign rights over the East Vietnam Sea (otherwise known as South China Sea), which includes the Spratly and Paracel islands. It stresses the importance of building national power through resources and people. It categorically abjures joining any military alliances and maintains the policy of not allowing any country to use its military bases for carrying out activities against a third country. Most interestingly, there are repeated references to developing defence ties with all countries through mutual respect, independence and sovereignty. The one striking example of benefits of defence diplomacy has been cooperation between Vietnam’s defence intelligence agency and its counterparts in other countries on strategic and defence issues. The white paper also discusses Vietnam’s role in peacekeeping operations, though here it expresses the need to gain further knowledge about legal systems and legal liabilities in UN peacekeeping operations.
Part two of the defence white paper discusses comprehensive national power including the whole gamut of factors and actors in building the national defence capability. Here, stress has been laid on developing the science and technology base. The white paper also provides details of the functions of the various departments and the role of leaders and their functional responsibilities. There is also a section devoted to the historical timeline of the development of the VPA and how the divisions were constituted during the First Vietnam War. This section also encapsulates the process of reunification of Vietnam in 1975 and the building of a unified country. It also clarifies the conditions under which Vietnam was forced to invade Cambodia.
The white paper also specifies that the strength of the Vietnamese people's Army (VPA) to be about 450,000, with five million reservists. It clearly states that Vietnam’s defence expenditure was Dong 16,278 billion in 2005 (approximately US $0.997 billion) and that it increased to 27,024 billion Dong ($1.8 billion) in 2008. Military expenditure as a percentage of GDP is in the range of 1.8 to 2.5 per cent.
In the defence white paper, an effort has been made to provide information about the various wings of the defence forces. Their areas of operation and responsibilities are also clearly demarcated. While stress has been laid on building the politico-spiritual strength of the personnel, there is no roadmap for providing them with enhanced training. The white paper lays great stress on enhancing the country’s technological capability, developing domestic defence industry and procuring advanced weaponry. It expresses clear apprehensions about the technical depth of the national defence industry and its capability to supply the military with advanced weaponry. A separate section is dedicated for broadening and intensifying international defence cooperation.
The last part of the white paper emphasises upon management of local defence units, strengthening them, training them and building greater awareness about among them about the emerging challenges. The concluding section highlights the need for greater convergence and integration. It also emphasizes the need for developing better relations with neighbours and the importance of striving for peace, democracy and progress in society. The appendices provide information about the country’s defence set up.
While the effort has been commendable, the white paper suffers from a few shortcomings. It falls short of identifying the major external and internal security challenges. While an attempt has been to be more transparent, the white paper does not give any information about the status of weapons, personnel training, and of the defence industry in terms of production. Although the white paper provides a comprehensive overview of the historical developments as well as the need for upgrading the defence forces and making them more efficient, it ignores the importance of network centric warfare and new modes of training like simulation, scenario building and war gaming. And finally, while Vietnam has the political will and national mandate for building strong, powerful and efficient defence forces, in terms of articulation there is a wide gap between perception and projection.
- 1. Vietnam National Defence, Ministry of National Defence, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Hanoi 12,2009