The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam Race to South China Sea Defense Modernization
Image Credit: Flickr/ Official U.S. Navy Page

The Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam Race to South China Sea Defense Modernization

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Over the last two months there have been several significant developments in improving the maritime capabilities of three Southeast Asian states: the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The Philippines

In December 2014 President Benigno Aquino enacted the 2015 General Appropriations Act, approving governmental expenditure of Pesos (P) 2.6 trillion ($59 billion).

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On December 17, Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad, head of the Philippine Navy’s weapons systems, announced that as part of his country’s 15-year P90 billion force modernization program, P39 billion ($885 million) would be allocated for the procurement of three guided missile fast attack craft, two guided missile stealth frigates, and two anti-submarine helicopters. The admiral also indicated that the Philippines was planning to acquire three submarines in future.

Admiral Taccad reported that France, South Korea, and Spain had submitted tenders for the frigates. Shipyards in Taiwan, India, Spain, France, and South Korea were in the running to provide the three multi-purpose missile attack craft, while Indonesia and Italy submitted bids to provide the two helicopters.

According to Admiral Taccad, “The events in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) actually gave some urgency on the acquisition.”

Five days later, the Philippines took possession of two AgustaWestland AW109 Power maritime helicopters. This particular model is capable of operating from small ships at sea and performing a variety of naval missions such as surface surveillance, search and rescue, economic zone protection, and maritime security.

On December 23, Captain Alberto Carlos, Chief of Naval Staff for Logistics, revealed that AgustaWestland was the sole eligible bidder for the two anti-submarine helicopters. AgustaWestland offered to sell its AW159 Wildcat, helicopters that can operate from stealth frigates.

On January 9, the Department of National Defense was allocated P 144.5 billion ($3.3 billion) in funding. On the same day, the Philippines signed a contract with the U.S. Navy for the purchase of two used C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft. This will bring the total number of mission-ready C-130s to five.

Finance for this purchase is being assisted by $20 million in U.S. foreign military financing plus $35.6 million from the Philippines. The Hercules are expected to be delivered next year.  The new Hercules transport craft will enhance the ability of the Philippines to deploy forces quickly for territorial defense and humanitarian operations.

Malaysia

In October 2014, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Malaysia’s defense budget would be increased to $5.4 billion in 2015, a hike of ten percent.  At the same time, the defense procurement and research budgets were increased by six percent to over $1 billion. This increase in defense funding, however, did not include the replacement of aging major weapons platforms such as MiG-29 jet fighters.

Malaysia’s increased defense spending was designed to meet two concerns: security threats from the southern Philippines and Chinese assertiveness in the seas around James Shoal. For example, defense funds will be used to relocate 19 light combat fighter planes to Labuan island. The airstrip at Labuan will also see the basing of the US Navy’s P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft on a case-by-case basis.

It is significant within this context that the Chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy, Admiral Aziz Jaafar, revealed in his New Year address on January 7, the navy had requested $2.86 billion in funding under the 11th Malaysia Plan, 2016-2020.

These funds, if approved, would be used primarily for the procurement of eight guided missile corvettes and six anti-submarine helicopters as well as for the acquisition of small craft and the replacement of obsolescent torpedo and missile systems on navy ships.

Vietnam

Vietnam was involved in an intense round of defense diplomacy in December 2014-January 2015 involving naval port visits, defense dialogues, and the exchange of high-level delegations involving four regional states in addition to Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Two Republic of Korea warships, destroyer Choe Yeong (DDH 981) and combat support ship Cheonji (AOE 57), visited Ho Chi Minh City for a four-day goodwill port visit from December 3-6. The warships were embarked on an international voyage to 12 countries and a Vietnamese naval cadet was included in the tour.

In early December, Vietnam hosted two military delegations, one from Indonesia and the other from Cambodia. Brigadier General Haryoko Sukarto, Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces’ Centre for Strategic Studies, held working-level discussions with the Institute for Military Strategy. Sukarto also met with Deputy Minister of National Defense Senior Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh on December 1. General Vinh requested that the two sides work out a specific plan of action for future cooperation, including stepping up the exchange of delegations. He also suggested that their bilateral defense dialogue be upgraded to deputy minister level.

Immediately after Sukarto’s visit, Vietnam hosted General Nieng Phat, Cambodia’s Minister of State for Defense, from December 4-5. General Phat met with General Vinh and Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh. Vinh and Phat reached agreement on future cooperation in education and training, research and sharing information, personnel exchanges, and consulting each other in multilateral forums. Both sides agreed to establish an annual dialogue mechanism on defense policies at deputy minister level as soon as possible.

On January 8, Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense hosted the third annual defense cooperation meeting with the United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry’s Defense Working Group. The U.K. delegation announced that it would increase its English-language program for Vietnamese military personnel by 300 percent commencing in March and fund two Vietnamese senior officers to attend a training course the Defense Academy at Shrivenham. The two sides also greed to cooperate in three new areas: exchange of bathymetric data, geospatial interaction, and cyber security.

More substantial defense cooperation emerged in Vietnam’s relations with Russia, India and the United States.

Vietnam-Russia

On December 4, the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg, Russia and Vietnamese officials signed a technical acceptance agreement for the official turn over of the third of six Project 636.1 advanced Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam. The new submarine, named HQ 183 Hai Phong, is currently being transported to Cam Ranh Bay and is expected to arrive at the end of this month.

The fourth Kilo-class submarine, HQ 185 Da Nang, is currently undergoing sea trials, while the fifth submarine, HQ 186 Khanh Hoa, was launched on December 20. Construction on the sixth submarine, HQ 187 Ba Ria-Vung Tau, commenced in late May 2014 and is expected to be delivered in 2016.

Vietnam’s ambassador to the Russian Federation told Interfax, a non-government Russian news agency, “Although the U.S. lifted part of its embargo on the sale of weapons and ammunition to Vietnam last month, Russia is still our priority partner in this sector.”

Vietnam-India

India’s Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Singh Suhag visited Vietnam from December 17-20. This was the first visit by an Indian chief of staff since 2007 when the two countries raised their relations to a strategic partnership. General Suhag and his counterpart, Lt. General Nguyen Quoc Khanh, deputy chief of the general staff, reviewed recent defense cooperation activities and agreed on a future plan of cooperation comprising exchanges of delegations, education and training, information exchanges and peacekeeping operations.

In January, India hosted Vietnam for their Ninth Defense Dialogue at deputy minister level. Defense Secretary Shri R. K. Mathur represented India and Deputy Minister for National Defense Senior Lt. General Nguyen Chi Vinh represented Vietnam.

General Vinh was quoted by the Indian media as stating, “Because of very drastic change in regional security, it has set the need for a closer cooperation between our two countries. Mostly in terms of strategic partnership.”

Vinh declined to comment in public on whether or not India should play a role in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea. He did observe, however,

“Other nations must be respectful over the issue of sovereignty. We won’t retreat over sovereignty… (although) we believe differences must be resolved through international laws in a peaceful manner… The international community sees a new and powerful India which is peaceful in nature and can contribute to regional peace and stability.”

The two sides reached agreement to continue to cooperate on regional strategic security issues in multilateral forums such as the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus. (ADMM Plus). India and Vietnam currently co-chair the ADMM Plus Expert Working Group on Humanitarian Mine Action.

Mathur and Vinh also agreed that future defense cooperation priorities would include exchanges of delegations, education and training, naval exchanges, advanced technology, defense industry and information technology. Mathur offered India’s assistance in Vietnam’s preparations for United Nations peacekeeping missions.

In an interview with The Economic Times General Vinh elaborated on future defense cooperation:

“Another field of cooperation is the defense hardware industry. There are possibilities of cooperation in shipbuilding, weapons system modernization and research and application of hi-tech defense systems. A new field of cooperation is hi-tech and information technology cooperation.”

General Vinh announced that the first phase of the Indian-funded Center for Information Technology and English Language at the Defense Ministry’s University of Telecommunications had been completed. Mathur and Vinh agreed to initiate the second phase during the second quarter of 2015 with the goal of developing the center into a major software hub in central Vietnam.

Mathur and Vinh also discussed operationalizing India’s offer of the $100 million line of credit. In December, prior to Vinh’s visit, NDTV reported that the Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers (GRSE), a Defense Public Sector unit, would supply at least four patrol vessels to Vietnam. It quoted the chairman and managing director of GRSE as saying that “Vietnam needs at least seven more such ships and GRSE is expected to get the order for the rest of the ships as well.”

During Vinh’s visit the Indian media issued conflicting reports. Official Indian sources were quoted as stating, “Vietnam has agreed to buy four patrol vessels for its Navy… but is yet to formally identify the shipyard it wants them from.” General Vinh was quoted as stating, “Vietnam is yet to decide on the number of vessels to be bought but said it was not just four.”

Before leaving New Delhi, General Vinh paid courtesy calls on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag.

Vietnam-United States

On December 24, the new American ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, gave an interview to Tuoi Tre newspaper. Osius was asked what weapons the U.S. was prepared to sell Vietnam now that it had partially lifted its arms embargo. Ambassador Osius responded, “[I]n the area of maritime security, we can have the fullest possible cooperation and security. It’s really up to the Vietnamese government to decide what weapons are most appropriate for its strategic challenges.”

Ambassador Osius then went on to reveal that he had heard the Vietnamese government was “thinking very deeply and carefully about what weapons are most appropriate and we will be very respectful of the decisions that the government of Vietnam makes about which weapons are the most appropriate one for its situation.”

On January 19, General Vincent Brooks, commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, paid a working visit to Vietnam for discussions with his counterpart Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA). The two sides reviewed progress under the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on bilateral defense cooperation. They also set priorities for the future including cooperation in humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, military medicine, and sharing of experiences on U.N. peacekeeping.

Before departing, General Brooks met with General Do Ba Ty, chief of staff of the VPA.  General Ty suggested that Vietnam and the United States step up the exchange of delegations at all levels and enhance collaboration in sharing information, maritime search and rescue, salvage operations at sea, and English language training. He also raised a perennial request for further U.S. assistance in “overcoming post-war consequences” such as dioxin poisoning from Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The day after General Brooks left Hanoi, Patrick Dewar, the executive vice president of Lockheed Martin International, visited Hanoi and met with Senior Lt. Gen. Truong Quang Khanh, Deputy Minister of National Defense. General Khanh expressed his appreciation for Lockheed Martin’s role in cooperating with Vietnam in the field of information technology. No further details were reported.

There has been considerable speculation that Vietnam is interested in procuring maritime surveillance aircraft and other technology related to maritime domain awareness. Lockheed Martin produced the P-3 Orion which is now being phased out by the United States, Australia, and other countries.

The developments of the past two months indicate that Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all given priority to modernizing their naval forces. Malaysia seeks to replace outdated platforms and weapons systems to keep pace with the introduction of new military technologies, platforms, and weapon systems into the region. The Philippines is starting from a lower base and seeks to acquire the capacity for territorial defense, especially in its maritime domain.

Vietnam’s force modernization program has been underway since the mid-1990s and is now maturing with the acquisition of six advanced Kilo-class submarines. Vietnam also pursues a robust program of defense cooperation with neighboring states as well as major powers to enhance its political and diplomatic leverage. A possible guide to Vietnam’s next phase of force modernization might be revealed when its postponed new Defense White Paper is finally released.

Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also seek to enhance their capacity for maritime security to meet South China Sea contingencies.

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