As events this year have shown, the Vietnamese government won’t suffer any buyer’s remorse regarding its decision to invest in six Russian Kilo-class submarines in a 2009 deal worth $2.6 billion. The government’s decision to both purchase these submarines and incorporate them strategically into a burgeoning asymmetric anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy were vindicated over the course of the dramatic saga earlier this year involving China moving its oil rig HYSY-981 into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). As far as Vietnam is concerned, international law, ASEAN, and even the naval might of the United States will do little to safeguard its territorial claims — it must move to deter Chinese irredentism by itself. Through its investments, Vietnam demonstrates an unwillingness to acquiesce to the age-old Thucydidean dictum that the “strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Vietnam’s Kilos could significantly alter the current balance between China and Vietnam. Where earlier this year we saw Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard ships ramming one another off the Vietnamese coast, the presence of Vietnamese submarines would have largely deterred a Chinese incursion into Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the first place. Beijing knows this. It is pursuing anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as a priority, but continues to face challenges. For Beijing, the primary concern when it comes to naval scenarios has been defending against an adversary with advanced surface ships and submarines (read: the United States and Japan). This is something that its own investments in A2/AD systems will likely ensure. However, as a largely non-expeditionary force, the PLAN remains rather ill-equipped to stage an offensive against an opponent employing a submarine-enforced area denial strategy. As Robert Farley has described in these pages, most Chinese ASW systems, like the Type 056 Corvette, the Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft, and underwater acoustic sensors ”still depend on proximity to Chinese bases for effectiveness.” Further, the diesel-electric Kilos that Vietnam is slated to deploy are among the quietest submarines, on par with the PLAN’s 12 Kilo-class submarines (10 of which are of the improved variant). In sum, with its Kilo-class acquisition, Vietnam is tipping the balance in its favor and substantially increasing Beijing’s perceived risk in deploying its surface ships into waters claimed by Vietnam.
For Vietnam, a country with a substantially smaller and ill-equipped navy compared to China, this asymmetric area denial strategy is really the only good way to counter Beijing’s attempts at enforcing its territorial claims in disputed waters. Given events earlier this year, the Vietnamese are wasting little time in operationalizing the first of their Kilos. A new Reuters report states that “the first two submarines have recently been sighted plying the Vietnamese coast on training runs.” A third Kilo remains in St. Petersburg and will be developed to Vietnam in November — a Vietnamese crew is training on the boat prior to delivery. The precise timing of a full Vietnamese submarine deployment in the South China Sea remains ambiguous, but it is likely to be sooner rather than later — certainly by the end of 2016, Vietnam will have largely operationalized its strategy against China.
So far, Vietnam has been careful to emphasize that its submarine acquisition is purely defensive and intended to retaliate against any hostile maritime incursion. In comments to Reuters, an anonymous Vietnamese official notes that that the Kilos “are not our sole weapon, but part of a number of weapons we are developing to better protect our sovereignty. In that regard, the submarines will be defensive.”
If Hanoi successfully implements its asymmetric area denial strategy with the use of its new submarines, it is likely that Beijing may focus on enforcing its territorial claims against the Philippines, where the barriers to doing so are substantially lower. The Philippine navy largely lacks submarine capabilities and modern surface ships. Tensions remain high between China and the Philippines. Beijing seized control of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012. The Philippine strategy has been focused on attempting to leverage Southeast Asia’s multilateral fora to resolve these maritime disputes, which has largely proved unsuccessful. Most recently, at the 2014 ASEAN Regional Forum, the Philippines sponsored a proposal for a freeze on provocative acts in the South China Sea.
Of course, while the Kilos will be a linchpin of Vietnam’s maritime strategy, they aren’t the only area of focus for the Vietnamese military. Last August, shortly following a visit to Russia by Vietnamese General Phung Quang Thanh, we learned that Vietnam would effectively double its fleet of Sukhoi SU-30MK2 multirole fighters, arming them with anti-ship missiles. Additionally, while Russia may be its primarily supplier, New Delhi has shown a particular eagerness in helping Vietnamese personnel train. The Indian navy is sharing its considerable expertise with Russian Kilos with Vietnamese submarine operators. There is further speculation that an upcoming defense agreement between the two countries could result in New Delhi training Vietnamese pilots as well. Additionally, India may sell Vietnam the hypersonic BrahMos cruise missile (which was developed jointly with Russia), although this would likely have negative ramifications on India’s relationship with China.
As it looks to implement its asymmetric deterrence strategies against China, Vietnam is likely to grow more assertive about defending its territorial claims against Beijing. Ever since the HYSY-981 crisis, Vietnamese rhetoric has been particularly pointed, reflecting Hanoi’s sensitivity to Chinese moves in the South China Sea. For example, on Monday, Vietnam’s foreign ministry demanded that Beijing cease all tourist activities in the Paracel archipelago, claiming that such actions violate Vietnam’s sovereignty. Hanoi’s new submarines will help it even the odds with Beijing and could transform the geopolitical landscape in the South China Sea.