Vietnam held its first international defense fair last week in a bid to diversify its arms suppliers away from Russia. Besides the weapons technical aspect, the expo was also an opportunity for partners like the United States or India to forge a closer defense relationship with Hanoi and to signal China that Vietnam is serious about modernizing and diversifying its armed forces.
So how does this fair fit into Vietnam’s overall security strategy? While the country prioritizes maintaining good relations with China to avoid unnecessary conflict, it is exploring options that can help minimize the negative impact of aggressive Chinese behavior in the short term and prepare for the worst in the long term. Vietnam will even out against China once delay does more harm than good. The expo no doubt fits with the country’s non-aligned foreign policy, as it does not tie Hanoi to other powers but supports its armaments production and modernization. But the key question remains: How can Vietnam equalize against China?
A country has two main ways of balancing against a threat: internal balancing through domestic arms production and external balancing through military alliances. Vietnam’s non-aligned foreign policy means it has chosen the first option while reserving the second for the future. But while it’s tempting to suggest that Hanoi’s decision to go with the first option was due to its own authority, ignoring the geographic source of that decision is detrimental to understanding the systemic factors that have underpinned Vietnam’s grand strategy since the country’s founding in 1945 have advanced. Vietnam’s geography is deeply hostile to fostering an alliance relationship with any external great power other than China, and it is geography that has pushed Vietnam to choose the option of internal reconciliation.
Vietnam borders strong China to the north, mountainous Laos to the west, wary Cambodia to the south, and a disputed sea to the east. The country thus long lacked strategic depth or distance from Vietnam’s front line to its heartland. As General Vo Nguyen Giap noted on the eve of the First Indochina War:
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“Indochina is a strategic entity, a single theater of operations. That is why we have the task of contributing to the liberation of all of Indochina. . . especially for strategic-geographical reasons [emphasis added]we cannot imagine a fully independent Vietnam while Cambodia and Laos are ruled by imperialism.”
This lack of strategic depth means that in the event of a massive invasion, Hanoi has little warning and must always rely on itself first and foremost, as an outside helper cannot react quickly enough.
A case in point is the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979. The Sino-Vietnamese border at Friendship Pass is less than 180 kilometers from Hanoi, and it took China about two weeks to capture Lang Son and more than 50 kilometers into Vietnamese territory to advance From Lang Son, 120 kilometers from Hanoi, China could have launched a direct attack on Vietnam’s capital, but it chose to retreat after successfully teaching Vietnam a brief but costly “lesson” to avoid Soviet intervention . Because of their great distance from Vietnam, the Soviets could do little to assist him quickly and directly under the Soviet Union-Vietnam Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, aside from an airlift of arms and a naval deployment off the coast of Vietnam. Vietnam’s battle-hardened military was therefore vital in slowing the Chinese advance. Had Vietnam relied solely on the Soviet Union and neglected its own army, it would have been defenseless against China.
Even when an outside power was stationed on Vietnamese soil, China was determined to drive that power out of Indochina. Beijing assisted the Việt Minh and later North Vietnam in successfully defeating France and the United States and their vassal states in 1954 and 1975, respectively. China’s geographic proximity to Vietnam means it can always pump more resources into Indochina than any other major power, and it has the determination to challenge the presence of these powers on its periphery at any cost. Vietnam was always under Chinese influence before the decline of the Qing Empire weakened China’s ability to respond to French colonization of Vietnam. Now that China is strong, no major external powers can take on Vietnam’s continental defenses, even if they commit to it. The recent failure of the French, Americans and Soviets to establish and maintain a military outpost in Indochina is a constant reminder of China’s determination to use force against outside powers on its periphery and Vietnam’s inability to prepare for an external settlement to leave the country.
Furthermore, unlike Ukraine, which borders the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which allows it to receive steady supplies of arms from the West, Vietnam does not border on the sphere of influence of other major powers. This geographic isolation means that if war breaks out with China, Vietnam will have to rely on its own stockpiles of weapons. Hanoi’s emphasis on modernizing its defense industry and its renunciation of foreign alliances strongly reflect the limited opportunities imposed by geographic proximity to China.
But Vietnam cannot compete with China in terms of resources, and it also faces another difficult choice when it comes to internal balance: either modernize the navy and air force, or invest more in the army to combat weapon obsolescence slow it down. The Vietnamese army is no match for the Chinese army, and it cannot rely on an external security guarantor due to hostile geography. As such, Vietnam must prioritize its army over the navy and air force to ensure China cannot exploit its lack of strategic depth.
However, a resource orientation away from the maritime sector is not synonymous with an attention orientation. Vietnam should not give up its claims in the South China Sea simply because it must prioritize continental defense. Fortunately, while Vietnam cannot rely on an external power for continental defence, it can for maritime defence. East Asia is divided into two distinct spheres of influence, with China dominating Continental Asia and the United States dominating Maritime Asia. In contrast to the geographic exclusivity of Vietnam’s continental landscape, its maritime geography is open to all outside powers. This allows Vietnam to internationalize the South China Sea disputes, which China does not like, and promotes closer defense ties with other major powers through port visits. Importantly, these port visits cannot fundamentally threaten China’s exclusive continental sphere and are therefore less provocative than a permanent foreign military base on Vietnamese soil, one of the three No.
The integrative nature of the South China Sea opens up an opportunity for Vietnam to shift the burden of China’s maritime reconciliation to major powers with vested interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific, while saving resources for internal reconciliation on land. And the move also fits with Washington’s aversion to a land war in Asia against China. The United States has embraced this formula, as evidenced by its transfers of naval assets to Vietnam and its involvement in challenging Chinese claims at sea. Vietnam and the United States and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue should further strengthen maritime security cooperation to help Hanoi cope with its resource shortages by modernizing its armed forces and allocating more money to continental defense. The internal balance on land and the external balance at sea should be the two main tenets of Vietnam’s security policy.
There is a Vietnamese proverb: “Nuoc xa khong cuu duoc lua gan” – “Far water cannot quench a fire near” – which emphasizes that Vietnam prefers to always rely on itself to balance against China hold, rather than against another distant major power. Vietnam’s lack of strategic depth and proximity to China limit its and other major powers’ ability to protect Vietnam. The Defense Fair is another forum for Vietnam to address the growing power imbalance with China as part of its self-governing security policy, and we should expect Vietnam to continue the process of arms diversification as Russia can no longer serve as a reliable supplier. History has shown that Vietnam can only be secured if its army is strong and its weapons plentiful.