Monday, December 21, 2009
Massive Vietnam arms buildup
Vietnam has made a new and huge purchase of weapons from its old Russian friends, and it seems more likely to increase regional tension and restart an arms race than to promote peace. The secrecy of the deal is at least equally unfortunate. News of the purchase of submarines and advanced fighter jets leaked out of Europe, and even then authorities in Hanoi simply kept mum. This is the first significant arms purchase within the region since Vietnam joined Asean. Hanoi has a lot of explaining to do.
Press reports last week from Russia said the major arms purchase totalled some US$2 billion (70 billion baht), and was finalised during a visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Mr Dung confirmed in an offhand remark at a press conference he had agreed to purchase weapons, but gave no details. Sources in Moscow indicate he made a major buy. It is worrying because the squadron of SU30 fighter jets he bought is highly advanced compared with other regional air forces.
It is more troubling, however, that the purchase includes six new Kilo- class submarines. This provides a weapon to the Vietnamese navy that is not available to Hanoi's partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Thai authorities, over the past two decades, have consistently rejected requests from the Royal Thai Navy and military headquarters for submarines. Experts almost unanimously agree that the boats are not particularly useful for patrolling or for protecting the generally shallow waters of the country's coastline, and the same can be said for Vietnam.
The only apparent reason Vietnam intends to add submarines to its naval arsenal is because it intends to step up its claims for disputed offshore shoals and small island groups. Vietnam contests sovereignty of several such uninhabited regions, most notably the Paracels group off its eastern coast, and the Spratly Islands, in Asean waters.
China, of course, also claims the Paracels and Spratlys. It has submarines, and so does another claimant, Taiwan. This was, presumably, the deciding factor in Mr Dung's decision to write a huge cheque to the arms vendors in Moscow to deliver one modern and newly built submarine a year to his navy. It is, however, a startling and at least partly recidivist decision. It is certain to have far-reaching consequences, few of them positive.
The Vietnam government's decision to build up its air and sea forces indicate two possibilities. The first is that Hanoi is growing nervous about possible aggression in the disputed offshore areas. That would be bad news for its neighbours as well. Or, Vietnam itself intends to initiate action, and become more aggressive about staking its claims.
That would be unacceptable.
Vietnam joined Asean in 1995, after more than a decade of deadly confrontation with the group - including military incursion of Thailand - after its 1977 invasion of Cambodia. In those 14 past years, Vietnam has been an extraordinarily good neighbour, especially
considering its previous military conflicts and political run-ins. Its conduct has done much to cool the concern of Asean partners who also claim the Spratly Islands. There are many, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines, in addition to China and Taiwan.
Vietnam should rethink its plans to initiate an arms race in the Asean region. Otherwise, it must give full details of its arms purchases to the public, and explain its reasoning. The leadership of Asean, starting with Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, must directly engage Hanoi over this serious arms escalation. Economically and politically, there seems no good reason for Vietnam to start a new programme of military re-armament. Editorial, Bangkok Post