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A Brief

Vietnam’s strategic outlook in the South China Sea is deeply rooted in both historical and contemporary considerations. This key region, nestled in the Pacific Ocean, is bordered by several neighboring nations, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan. Notably, it serves as a crucial conduit for global trade, with approximately one-third of the world’s trade transiting through its vital sea lanes. Adding to its significance, the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the largest U.S. fleet forward-deployed in the area, reinforces the strategic importance of Vietnam in this region.

A historical Perspective

Following the Vietnam War and the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1975, the nation confronted various challenges, including its involvement in a conflict in Cambodia and a prolonged border dispute with China from 1979 to 1989. These complex issues, coupled with the lasting impacts of the war, resulted in Vietnam’s economy falling behind its Southeast Asian counterparts. Despite the cessation of conventional conflicts, Vietnam grappled with economic stagnation. However, the turning point came in December 1986, during the Sixth National Party Congress, when the Doi Moi policy was introduced. This comprehensive program of economic and political reforms aimed to transition from a centrally planned economy to a market-oriented one.

The resolution passed during the Sixth National Party Congress underscored the significance of peace for economic development and emphasized the establishment of peaceful relationships with all states, regardless of their socio-political systems. Vietnam significantly downsized its standing defense force, introducing the concepts of “people’s war” and “all-people’s national defense,” which highlighted the involvement of the entire population in the nation’s protection. In the years that followed, Vietnam normalized its relations with China in 1991, became a member of ASEAN in 1995, and joined the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1998.

In 1998, Vietnam unveiled its first Defense White Paper (DWP), which identified major threats, including economic decline, political and security challenges, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and non-traditional security issues like smuggling and illegal fishing within its waters.

In 2004, Vietnam published its second DWP, reaffirming its dedication to peace and self-defense and expressing its opposition to military alliances and foreign military bases on its territory. The DWP 2004 also recognized the significance of addressing unresolved disputes concerning sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and non-traditional security concerns.

By 2007, Vietnam had introduced its first comprehensive maritime strategy, titled “Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy towards the Year 2020,” with the aim of developing a robust maritime and coastal economy. This strategy gave priority to bolstering the country’s armed forces, particularly focusing on the Navy, Air Force, marine police, border protection force, maritime militia, and self-defense force. These forces were tasked with protecting fishermen and supporting activities related to the exploration of maritime resources within Vietnam’s maritime zones.

The escalating tensions in the South China Sea brought forth challenges from China, including warnings to foreign oil and gas companies engaged in joint exploration efforts with Vietnam. In response to these challenges, Vietnam needed to enhance its defense diplomacy, seek international support, and invest in maritime forces capable of upholding national sovereignty. The DWP 2009 reiterated Vietnam’s commitment to resolving disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international laws.

Geography at play

Vietnam’s extensive 3,260-kilometer coastline along the western South China Sea is rich in fisheries and vast hydrocarbon reserves. While estimates of these resources may vary, it is evident that a significant portion lies within the Exclusive Economic Zones claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. These overlapping claims have given rise to jurisdictional disputes, particularly due to China’s expansive ‘new ten dash line’ claims.

In this geopolitical landscape, Vietnam’s strategic significance becomes pronounced. Positioned as a substantial obstacle to China’s southward maritime expansion, Vietnam is marked by unresolved territorial and maritime disputes with China. Recognized as a key player in the regional dynamics of this vital waterbody, Vietnam’s role is acknowledged by major maritime powers, including the United States, China, Japan, India, Russia, and Australia.

Security and Maritime Challenges to Vietnam

Vietnam confronts a substantial maritime security challenges, primarily focused on safeguarding its territorial claims, sovereignty, and national interests in a region rife with disputes. These disputes extend to claims on the Paracel and Spratly Islands and the assertion of jurisdiction over an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf as defined by UNCLOS baselines. Of particular concern is China’s assertive actions in the region, including the takeover of the Paracel Islands and extensive construction efforts in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam is unwavering in its commitment to defending these claims, which have become a paramount security concern as China’s influence in the South China Sea grows. Moreover, Vietnam grapples with non-traditional security challenges, such as transnational crime, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing, cyber threats, environmental degradation, climate change, terrorism, illegal immigration, and pandemics, with piracy, smuggling, and climate change emerging as the most significant non-traditional maritime security issues for the nation.

China’s assertive stance in Territories Surrounding the South China Sea

Disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea involve multiple nations, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Taiwan, and these disputes revolve around claims to islands and maritime rights. China’s sovereignty claims in the area are rooted in historical connections dating back to various Chinese dynasties, ancient maps, and actions during the Opium Wars and the 20th-century occupation of key islands, which China cites to bolster its territorial claims. China’s use of the “dash-line” doctrine, introduced in 1947, and it’s more assertive stance subsequently, including activities like imposing fishing bans and conducting military exercises, have contributed to heightened tensions, particularly with Vietnam. As China’s economic and military power has grown, it has become increasingly assertive in safeguarding its interests through various means as a great power in the region. The evolving power balance, coupled with Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry and China’s need to secure economic and energy resource security, has played a pivotal role in flaring tensions in the South China Sea. China’s growing concerns in the region are centered on “Malacca dilemma”, the Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry, heightened Sino-Philippine tensions, along with the presence of the United States in this geo political spectrum.

Simmering Tensions and Territorial Disputes

  • China Vs. Taiwan

First, let us get a glimpse of Taiwan in the region with which Beijing’s relations are flaring. Despite governing itself independently since 1949, officially as the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan finds itself in a precarious situation. China, officially the People’s Republic of China (PRC), deems Taiwan a rebellious province and aspires to achieve “unification” with the mainland, even if coercive measures are necessary. The tension has intensified notably since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. President Tsai, at the helm of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and advocating for a nuanced approach to Taiwan’s status, endeavors to maintain a peaceful yet distinctive relationship with China. However, China’s response has been marked by assertive actions, including military provocations in close proximity to Taiwan, heightening concerns that a conflict over Taiwan might entangle the United States in a war with China. The United States has adopted a One-China policy and does not formally recognize Taiwan, maintaining a complex unofficial relationship while continuing to sell arms to Taiwan’s military. Recent administrations have increased engagement with Taiwan, including arms sales, official visits, and greater diplomatic contact, which has elicited strong responses from China. The risk of a potential conflict over Taiwan remains a significant concern, as China’s military capabilities grow, and the political situation continues to evolve. The possibility of war over Taiwan is not ruled out, with differing opinions among experts regarding the likelihood and timing of a Chinese invasion. The United States’ policy of strategic ambiguity has aimed to strike a delicate balance between supporting Taiwan and preventing a war with China, but President Joe Biden’s statements indicating U.S. defense of Taiwan have added uncertainty to the situation. Despite the economic and diplomatic challenges posed by China’s pressure, Taiwan’s democracy has remained resilient and vibrant, with most people on the island supporting the status quo while seeking closer ties with countries that respect its sovereignty and democratic values.

  • Philippines Vs. China

In the South of Taiwan lies the Philippines, whose President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s visited China in January 2023, where he established a hotline for direct communication between the Philippines and China’s foreign affairs ministries, aimed to prevent the escalation of tensions in the West Philippine Sea. However, when a crisis occurred in August, with the Chinese Coast Guard firing water cannons at Philippine boats in their exclusive economic zone, the hotline remained unanswered. China’s actions, such as the publication of a new map with ten-dash lines that violate international law and the 2016 arbitral decision, have raised concerns and led to diplomatic protests. While the Philippines and like-minded nations have stood up to China’s assertiveness, the challenges persist. The current administration, under Marcos Jr., has departed from the previous pro-China policy, emphasizing a foreign policy aligned with national interests and strengthening alliances with countries sharing similar values. Public opinion supports such measures to address West Philippine Sea issues, emphasizing military strengthening, joint maritime patrols, and a focus on defense capabilities.

The Role of the United States

President Joe Biden’s most recent visit to Hanoi marks a significant milestone in the growing relationship between the United States and Vietnam, as they upgraded their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. This new level of diplomatic engagement, Vietnam’s highest, is expected to lead to increased military cooperation and closer collaboration on issues like climate change. During his visit, Biden encouraged U.S. technology and aviation companies to expand their partnerships with Vietnamese counterparts. However, the Biden administration has faced criticism from human rights groups and some members of Congress for engaging more closely with Vietnam at a time when the country’s human rights record has deteriorated. Despite these concerns, the strategic importance of Vietnam in the region has led the White House to prioritize the relationship, in contrast to the 1990s and 2000s when human rights issues hindered U.S.-Vietnam ties.

While most of Vietnam’s ASEAN neighbors have leaned closer to China, Hanoi’s concerns about Chinese aggression and actions in the South China Sea have driven its decision to strengthen ties with the United States. However, Vietnam is unlikely to completely pivot away from its multidirectional foreign policy. The country remains economically dependent on China, making it challenging to decouple their economies. Additionally, Vietnam maintains historical ties with Russia, which has been a key arms supplier and supporter during the Vietnam War. Therefore, Vietnam’s comprehensive strategic partnership with the United States signifies a deepening alignment of interests but does not imply a complete departure from its existing international relationships, as it continues to balance its strategic engagements.

A Calculus of Vietnam’s Deterrence amid Tensions in the South China Sea

Vietnam’s strategic approach centers on safeguarding its regime’s survival, countering China’s influence, and avoiding regional conflicts, with a primary focus on protecting sovereignty and enforcing maritime claims in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese Communist Party (CPV) is aiming to secure its power by driving economic growth. Vietnam actively cultivates relationships with key players like the United States, Japan, India, Australia, and fellow Southeast Asian nations. Vietnam adheres to a defense policy guided by the “three No’s,” which means no alliances, no foreign military bases on its soil, and no reliance on other nations during conflicts. While Vietnam desires strong defense cooperation with the United States, its proximity to China necessitates a careful balancing act. Vietnam’s approach opposes the use of force, seeks to deter China, and is open to participating in security and defense mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific region, including potential engagement with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and greater involvement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) security initiatives.

Analysis

Philippines to conduct ambitious exercises with the U.S. as concerns over China grow

Philippines to conduct ambitious exercises with the U.S. as concerns over China grow

The Philippines and the United States are gearing up for their most ambitious joint military exercise to date due to escalating tensions with China in the South China Sea. This year’s Balikatan drills, set to commence from April 22 to May 10, will see more than 16,000 soldiers conducting joint naval exercises beyond the Philippines’ territorial waters for the first time since the exercise’s inception in 1991. The expanded scope of the drills reflects growing concerns over Chinese activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea. These maneuvers will involve a joint command center coordinating four major activities focused on countering maritime and air threats.
Officials revealed that the exercises will feature operations such as the simultaneous securing of two islands along the Philippines’ western and northern coasts, followed by the deployment of High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers for live-firing exercises. Additionally, Philippine naval vessels will showcase a newly acquired ship-based missile system in coordination with U.S. Air Force squadrons, culminating in a simulated strike on a decommissioned vessel. The exercises aim to foster integration between Philippine and U.S. forces, bolstering their readiness as a unified fighting force.

Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, a spokesperson for the Philippine navy, stated that the drills convey a clear message: the Philippines is prepared to defend its sovereign rights and is not acting alone in safeguarding regional security. The increased military cooperation between the Philippines and the U.S. comes because of heightened tensions, particularly around strategic areas like the Second Thomas Shoal, where recent confrontations with China have raised concerns about potential conflict in the region.
The Biden administration’s commitment to the Philippines’ defense has been underscored by warnings that any armed attack against Philippine military vessels would trigger the U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty. President Biden reaffirmed the “ironclad” U.S. defense commitment during President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s visit to Washington, highlighting the strategic importance of countering Chinese assertiveness in the region.
The deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region has further exacerbated tensions with China, marking the first such deployment since the Cold War era. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lin Jian, expressed grave concern over this move, denouncing it as a unilateral effort to enhance military advantage near China’s borders. The deployment, confirmed by the U.S. military on Monday, strategically positions a mid-range capability missile system on northern Luzon in the Philippines, within range of vital locations along China’s eastern coast.
Analysts view this deployment as a significant development with potential implications for regional security dynamics. Eric Heginbotham from MIT’s Center for International Studies highlighted the system’s role in countering Chinese military capabilities, particularly concerning Taiwan. Wilson Beaver of The Heritage Foundation emphasized that while the current deployment is limited, a more permanent presence of such systems could complicate Chinese military planning, especially regarding scenarios like an invasion of Taiwan.
The U.S. military’s strategic posture in the Pacific aligns with broader regional security goals, as emphasized by Commander Charles Flynn of the U.S. Army Pacific Command. Chinese officials have repeatedly voiced opposition to actions perceived as threatening regional peace and stability, citing concerns over heightened tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Overall, these developments underscore the evolving dynamics and geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, with implications for broader security strategies and regional stability.

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Asia

In a significant move, India delivered BrahMos missiles to the Philippines

In a significant move, India delivered BrahMos missiles to the Philippines

Background

The BrahMos missile system, a collaborative endeavor between India and Russia, stands as a testament to the ingenuity and strategic foresight of both nations. Conceived in the late 1990s, the project aimed to develop a supersonic cruise missile capable of delivering precision strikes at incredible speeds. Named after the Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers, it symbolizes the convergence of Indian and Russian expertise in defense technology. Over the years, the BrahMos missile has evolved into one of the world’s fastest and most versatile cruise missiles, showcasing the capabilities of Indo-Russian cooperation in the realm of defense.

Development of BrahMos missile system

The development journey of the BrahMos missile system has been characterized by innovation, collaboration, and strategic vision. Beginning with the conceptualization of a joint venture between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya, the project aimed to harness the technological prowess of both nations to create a formidable weapon system. Through years of research, testing, and refinement, the BrahMos missile system emerged as a flagship project, demonstrating India’s indigenous technological capabilities and its ability to collaborate on complex defense projects with international partners.

The Genesis of BrahMos: From Concept to Reality

The genesis of the BrahMos project can be traced back to the late 1990s when India and Russia embarked on a journey to develop a supersonic cruise missile. Driven by the need to enhance India’s defense capabilities and bolster strategic deterrence, the project brought together the expertise of Indian and Russian scientists and engineers. The collaboration aimed to leverage the strengths of both nations in propulsion, guidance systems, and materials technology to create a missile system unlike any other. Named after two iconic rivers, the BrahMos missile symbolizes the synergy between India and Russia in pursuit of technological excellence and national security.

Strengthening Bilateral Ties: The India-Philippines Defense Deal

In January 2022, India and the Philippines signed a landmark defense deal worth US$ 375 million, laying the foundation for enhanced cooperation in defense technology and strategic partnership. Central to this agreement was the provision for the export of BrahMos missiles to the Philippines, marking a significant step in India’s defense diplomacy. The deal underscored India’s commitment to bolstering the defense capabilities of its allies in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in light of growing security challenges posed by regional adversaries. For the Philippines, the acquisition of BrahMos missiles represented a strategic investment in national security, providing the country with a potent deterrent against potential threats.

The Delivery: Bridging Distances, Strengthening Alliances

On a bright Friday morning, the skies above Manila witnessed a historic moment as an Indian Air Force C-17 Globe master jet descended, carrying the first batch of BrahMos missiles destined for the Philippines. The delivery, meticulously planned and executed, marked the culmination of years of negotiations, technical cooperation, and diplomatic efforts between India and the Philippines. Symbolizing the strength of bilateral ties and the shared commitment to regional security, the arrival of the BrahMos missiles in the Philippines sent a powerful message to allies and adversaries alike. With each missile launcher, radar unit, and command-and-control center, the Philippines bolstered its defense capabilities, ensuring a swift and decisive response to emerging threats in the region.

Unleashing BrahMos: A Game-Changer in Modern Warfare

The BrahMos missile system represents a paradigm shift in modern warfare, combining speed, precision, and versatility to deliver devastating blows to enemy targets. With a top speed of Mach 2.8, the BrahMos missile outpaces conventional cruise missiles, making it virtually impossible for adversaries to intercept or evade. Its ability to be launched from multiple platforms, including submarines, ships, aircraft, and land-based launchers, gives it unparalleled flexibility on the battlefield. For the Philippines, the acquisition of BrahMos missiles heralds a new era of defense capabilities, providing the country with a strategic edge in safeguarding its territorial integrity and national interests.

Global Interest: The BrahMos Phenomenon Goes International

The delivery of BrahMos missiles to the Philippines has sparked interest from other nations seeking to enhance their defense capabilities in the face of evolving security challenges. Countries like Argentina have expressed interest in acquiring BrahMos missiles from India, recognizing their unparalleled speed, range, and precision. The growing international interest in BrahMos missiles underscores their status as a game-changer in modern warfare and a symbol of technological prowess and strategic deterrence. As India expands its defense partnerships and strengthens its position as a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region, the BrahMos missile system emerges as a key instrument of peace, stability, and deterrence.

End Note

The delivery of BrahMos missiles to the Philippines marks a significant milestone in India’s defense diplomacy and strategic outreach in the Indo-Pacific region. It underscores India’s commitment to strengthening bilateral ties, fostering regional security, and promoting peace and stability in the face of evolving security challenges. As the BrahMos missile system finds new homes across the globe, it serves as a testament to the ingenuity, innovation, and collaborative spirit of nations working together to safeguard shared interests and uphold the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. In an era defined by uncertainty and complexity, the BrahMos missile system stands as a beacon of hope, deterrence, and resilience, embodying the collective aspirations of nations to build a safer, more secure world for future generations.

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Analysis

Philippines, the United States, Australia, Japan to hold joint air and sea drills in South China Sea

Philippines, the United States, Australia, Japan to hold joint air and sea drills in South China Sea

In a significant move aimed at addressing China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea, the United States, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines have announced plans to conduct joint naval and air drills on April 7, 2024. This coordinated effort, named the “Maritime Cooperative Activity,” will be held within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and is strategically timed ahead of an upcoming trilateral summit involving US President Joe Biden and the leaders of the Philippines and Japan. The defense chiefs of these four nations emphasized that the joint exercise aims to showcase their collective commitment to increase regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

According to statements from the Japanese embassy in Manila, the drills will involve the participation of naval and air force units from all participating countries, focusing on enhancing interoperability in doctrines, tactics, techniques, and procedures, with a specific emphasis on anti-submarine warfare training. The decision to hold these joint drills and convene the upcoming summit follows ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, notably characterized by confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels near disputed reefs.

China has accused the Philippines of escalating tensions in the region, where longstanding maritime territorial disputes persist. In response, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed America’s unwavering commitment to defending the Philippines against armed attacks in the South China Sea, highlighting the shared commitment to uphold international law and ensure freedom of navigation.

Meanwhile, ongoing talks between the Philippines and Japan for a defense pact allowing troop deployment on each other’s territory reflect Manila’s efforts to strengthen partnerships because of regional challenges. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has emphasized the need for Japan to play a larger role in providing options and support to Southeast Asian countries, aligning with broader efforts to foster trilateral cooperation in various sectors, including technology and energy development, with the United States and the Philippines.

The upcoming joint naval and air operations in the disputed South China Sea signal a deepening of ties among the participating nations. This exercise highlights their collective commitment to regional stability and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific. China’s continued assertion of claims over contested waters, including those also claimed by the Philippines, Japan, and self-ruled Taiwan, has prompted the United States to strengthen alliances in the region, particularly with treaty allies Japan and the Philippines.

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