Where should the focus of Vietnam’s national security strategy lie in an age of rising Chinese power? In 2019, Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense released a defense white paper that put much emphasis on the South China Sea (SCS). Vietnam made clear that it was unhappy with China’s destabilizing behaviors in the SCS, referencing its “actions to unilaterally impose based on force disregarding international laws and militarization activities that change the status quo, violate Vietnam’s sovereignty.” The white paper also cautioned that “great-power competition is getting increasingly tense, making the East Sea [SCS] become ‘flashpoint’ at one point, which increases the risks of conflict.”
Since the 1990s, the SCS has been the focus of Vietnam’s national security strategy, with the goal of constraining Chinese expansion. Indeed, the bulk of Vietnam’s military modernization efforts since the early 2000s has focused on the navy and air force in order to boost their ability to protect the country’s maritime interests in a context of high-tech warfare and growing uncertainty in the SCS. Scholars have also noted the importance of the SCS in the overall China-Vietnam relationship and the ways in which China’s rise has shifted the regional maritime balance of power with great implications for settling the SCS disputes in a peaceful manner.
However, such an emphasis on the SCS as the potential flashpoint of Vietnam’s future conflicts with China is misplaced for two reasons. First, China’s rise has shifted the power balance not only at sea but also on the land. Beijing’s attempts to woo Vietnam’s neighbors, Cambodia and Laos, with economic rewards are as dangerous to Hanoi as its destabilizing actions in the SCS. Second, such an emphasis cannot explain Hanoi’s shift to maritime security in the 1990s and overstates the importance of the SCS in its long-term strategic outlook at the expense of other more important priorities, such as the alignment of Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam’s post-Cold War reorientation toward the SCS is based on the premise that its land borders are already secured. But China’s moves to win Laos and Cambodia to its side should shift its focus back landward.
Countries generally prioritize land security over maritime security, and only after they have secured their land borders do they look to the ocean. This is simply because it is costly to build and maintain an army and a navy at the same time, especially when the rival is a peer or a more powerful state. China only began to expand its maritime capabilities in the 1980s after its land borders were secured and it became the sole great power in mainland Northeast Asia, reducing its need for a large army. Even now, China has little fear for its land security, given that most of its neighbors are much weaker. In the case of India, the Himalayas serve as a natural buffer to prevent both sides from fighting a large war that can threaten China’s survival. Thanks to the favorable power balance on the land, Beijing has shifted its focus to the maritime domain to contest the United States’ maritime primacy.
The same thing can be said about Vietnam. Hanoi only looked to the sea in the 1990s after it had defeated South Vietnam, resolved its border conflicts and normalized relations with China, and addressed the security threats in Laos and Cambodia in the aftermath of the Third Indochina War. Hanoi’s protests against China’s occupations of the Paracel islands in 1974 and the Johnson South Reef in 1988 were weak for a good reason: it was distracted by other more pressing security threats on land and it did not have the capability to field a strong army and navy at the same time.
Vietnam’s prioritization of land over the sea was understandable. Compared to mainland Indochina, the SCS lacks the strategic importance that matters to Vietnam’s survival. Both the Paracel and Spratly island groups are far from Vietnam’s shore, meaning that losing them, while harmful to Vietnam’s economic interests, does not hurt Vietnam’s survival in any way. Remarkably, South Vietnam’s loss of the Paracel islands in 1974 to China did not spell its doom – the North Vietnamese army was responsible for that – while Vietnam’s loss of Johnson South Reef to China in 1988 did not threaten Hanoi’s survival as much as China’s 1979 ground invasion.
Importantly, both China’s and Vietnam’s land features are too small to defend in the event of war. And apart from using them as a way to assert sovereignty, those features have limited military use without external maritime surveillance capability and have little impact on freedom of navigation. On the other hand, Hanoi is fully aware of the significance of Laos and Cambodia to its survival, which has been demonstrated by its use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to launch attacks on South Vietnam and its ambition to keep the two countries under an Indochinese Federation and out of the orbit of other rivals after 1975.
The key point is that China now poses a comprehensive threat to Vietnam, on both land and sea, as it presses forward with its Belt and Road Initiative and militarization of islands in the South China Sea, as well as the modernization of its navy. As a weaker power, Vietnam has little choice but to adjust its calculations accordingly and prioritize wisely. China’s occupation of SCS features claimed by Vietnam does not offer it more leverage on land. However, China’s ability to attack Vietnam on land does offer it more leverage on the sea because the stakes are much higher for Vietnam’s security. And this suggests that Vietnam should look west for its survival.
Vietnam has little hope in the east; it cannot fight and win a naval war against China because the maritime balance of power is heavily skewed against it no matter how much it spends on modernizing its navy and air force in the aftermath of major purchases from Russia. It also cannot expect the U.S. to come to its defense, given that Washington has maintained its neutrality with regard to the territorial disputes in the SCS and is not bound by a treaty to defend Vietnam, as in the case of the Philippines.
However, the balance of power on land works more in Vietnam’s favor and it is this that will determine its survival. Vietnam has experience fighting major ground wars against superior enemies and has a better chance of neutralizing China’s qualitative and quantitative military advantages than at sea. The war in Ukraine has shown that a small power can forestall a large power’s attacks by employing a porcupine strategy. Instead of deploying modern military equipment, Vietnam can simply procure cheap and mass-produced weapon systems that are easy to hide and use to significantly increase the costs of Chinese ground attacks.
The mountainous topography of northern Vietnam and Laos should also complement Hanoi’s “porcupine” strategy. During China’s invasion in 1979, Vietnam successfully relied on militia and special operatives, who used tunnels and jungle warfare to stop Chinese assaults along the border while the regular army waited behind the front line to confront the exhausted Chinese troops.
For Vietnam to successfully deter China, it needs to ensure that China does not establish any military outposts in Laos and Cambodia that allow Beijing to launch a multi-front invasion in addition to the China-Vietnam border. This explains why Hanoi is wary of China’s involvement in the refurbishment of a naval base in Cambodia and Chinese investments in debt-crippled Laos. Sri Lanka accepting to host a Chinese research vessel despite India’s objections should caution Vietnam that Beijing can similarly leverage its economic power to security ends in Laos. Vietnam thus should put more effort into courting these two countries with economic rewards and political support.
Vietnam’s partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India – should not only support its efforts to balance against China in the SCS but also in Laos and Cambodia. And the support does not have to be military. The Quad can provide economic and infrastructure support to weaken the appeal of China’s economic rewards, a task that Vietnam alone cannot achieve. Importantly, Vietnam needs to maintain good relations with China by committing to a diplomatic solution of the SCS disputes in line with international law. History has shown that if the overall Vietnam-China relationship is good, both sides will be willing to settle their disputes peacefully.
The South China Sea surely matters to Vietnam’s economic development, but it will be Laos and Cambodia that determine its survival over the long term. And importantly, protecting Vietnam’s land security first and foremost is the best way for it to protect its sovereignty in the SCS. Continuing to balance against China at sea via naval and air force modernization is a step in the wrong direction if China increasingly poses a threat on land. Vietnam therefore needs to strengthen its army and put Laos and Cambodia back at the center of its national security strategy. A grand strategy for Vietnam should start with a simple question: is Vietnam secure enough on land to expand to the sea? If China ever decides to test Vietnam on land, Hanoi should be able to pass the test, as it has successfully done so many times over the past 2,000 years.