Vietnam’s Defense Strategy: A Maritime-Oriented Continental Perspective

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Vietnam’s Defense Strategy: A Maritime-Oriented Continental Perspective

At a time when Vietnam is increasingly looking to the sea, how can it balance a focus on its western continental frontiers and the eastern maritime domain?

Vietnam’s Defense Strategy: A Maritime-Oriented Continental Perspective

An air defense gun on display at a military museum in Binh Duong, Vietnam, November 16, 2021.

Credit: Photo 268259835 © Duc Huy Nguyen |

Vietnam is a maritime-oriented continental country. The country is continental because its historical development has always been based on a predominantly continental foundation. Its strategic culture has been affected by a continental mindset dominated by a Confucian, anti-mercantile ruling elite during the country’s dynastic period. During the 20th century, Vietnam dealt mostly with land-based security threats and wars fought primarily on land. Geographical and cultural proximity with China has created a love-hate relationship between Vietnam and its giant neighbor to the north that, for centuries, has dominated Vietnam’s security strategic thinking from a continental perspective.

However, in a significant strategic shift, Vietnam has begun to focus more on the maritime domain in the 21st century. The strategic importance of the sea was first officially recognized in 1993, and this shift was further institutionalized in the ensuing decades. Even then, the strategic goal was clear: to transform Vietnam into a “strong maritime country.” This goal has been emphasized in the 2007 Maritime Strategy and the reviewed Blue Economy Strategy in 2018.

Those documents make that maritime strategic thinking crystal clear. In the Maritime Strategy, the Vietnamese leadership recognized that the 21st century would be a “maritime century,” and the document included the motto “hướng ra biển là thịnh vượng” (looking towards the sea means prosperity). It described the sea as the country’s “living space,” crucial to its development and security. As a result, Vietnam “must be a strong maritime country that can get rich from the sea.”

Assessing Vietnam’s defense posture and analyzing its subsequent military procurement strategy requires a thorough understanding of Vietnam’s grand strategic priorities, especially its economic pillar. Considering the need to create a peaceful environment for economic growth, the defense pillar of the country’s grand strategy has to be designed accordingly, adhering to the fact that Vietnam’s current threat perceptions and economic priorities have been predominantly shifting eastward towards the sea. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Vietnam is facing significant and imminent threats from the maritime domain, ranging from low-intensity gray-zone tactics (China’s illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive activities) to high-intensity maritime conflicts (a hypothetical limited and localized naval war and a potential naval blockade). A large-scale land border war similar to what occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s is highly unlikely, although it cannot be completely ruled out.

Arguments for shifting back to a continental security strategy ignore the established consensus within the leadership regarding the central role of the sea in Vietnam’s grand strategy. These arguments have also been difficult to justify from the current geo-strategic point of view as they tend to see the continental west and the maritime east as separate domains with no meaningful connection. In reality, a binary continental-versus-maritime dilemma is somewhat artificial, as Vietnam will continue to look landwards for its security and, to some extent, for its prosperity.

Additionally, looking at the western continental frontiers through the historical lens of the Cold War distorts the true nature of threats that Vietnam faces on land. In today’s interconnected world, Vietnam’s relationship with its three neighboring countries is based on different principles, priorities, dynamics, and mindsets from the Cold War era. The western borderlands abutting Cambodia and Laos have been increasingly shaped by peaceful economic cooperation and the concept of common prosperity. This western frontier is home to completely different sets of “untraditional” security threats, which require different methods and approaches to resolve. It is nonsensical, for that reason, for any argument to assert that Vietnam should just amass military equipment to deal with these kinds of non-traditional security challenges while it possesses other suitable sets of policy tools with which to do so.

In sum, Vietnam does not need to look either “east” or “west.” As a maritime-oriented continental country, it needs to focus on both domains in order to guarantee its future economic development and security. The real question is how the country can balance its defense investment between the western continental frontiers and the eastern maritime domain, given its limited resources. This question is inevitably tied to the country’s grand strategic vision and its perception of threats. How much money should the Vietnamese military invest in developing deterrence capabilities at sea, countering China’s gray zone tactics, and beefing up its defensive capabilities on land?

Vietnam is trying to modernize its armed forces to meet its goal of turning them into a capable and modern military by 2030. The language of the 2019 White Defense Paper stressed the modernization of several critical services, with the Navy and the Air Force at the forefront (there was no mention of the ground force). China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea is apparently the main reason for the push. The country’s maritime economic vision has also persuaded the party to invest in naval and air power.

That doesn’t mean the ground force has been neglected and receives no attention. Recent modernization efforts include upgrading the army’s mass T-54/T-55 tank fleets with T-90 tanks purchased from Russia, potentially acquiring South Korean K-9 Howitzers, and working on various projects to produce Vietnamese-made infantry fighting vehicles, to name a few. This indicates that it is time for the Vietnamese army to upgrade its outdated and decade-old equipment and doctrine to catch up with its neighbors. This reflects the military’s established approach to maintaining the fighting readiness of its ground force to maintain a minimum deterrent against a large-scale ground invasion, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though this is still a far-fetched scenario. It does not imply a shift in strategic priority from the east to the west.

The debate should go further: Are those investments in the country’s capabilities to defend its maritime domain sufficient? Why has Vietnam stopped purchasing new assets and platforms for its naval fleets since 2016, when it commissioned the two last pairs of Gepard frigates? Why is it not pursuing replacements for its decades-old Su-22 fleets, despite more and more accidents happening each year? What are the options to further expand the Air Force’s fighter fleet? Should Vietnam prioritize its anti-gray zone capabilities by investing in its maritime law enforcement forces and militia rather than investing in naval war-fighting and deterrent capabilities? Expanding and protecting its interests at sea can pose a dilemma for a small maritime-oriented continental country: one cent spent for the ground force would be one cent less for the maritime forces, and investing in naval capabilities is notoriously expansive.

The debate surrounding Vietnam’s defense procurement strategy should also focus not on the continental versus maritime binary but on strengthening Vietnam’s autonomy in sustaining its military capabilities in an Indo-Pacific domain dominated by maritime contingencies. Under the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Vietnamese military is strengthening a three-pronged procurement strategy to satisfy its modernization needs, focusing on building its own dual-use military-industrial complex. How this military-industrial complex will work sustainably is a critical question. This would include the choice of reliable defense partners, the distribution of resources between state-owned companies and the private sector, the building of suitable legal frameworks, and seeking markets for that nascent defense industry.

Arguing that Vietnam should shift its military posture to the continental west at the expense of the maritime east is misguided because Vietnam values both domains. The maritime space will define Vietnam’s future, along with consistent backing of its continental landmass. A realistic analysis of Vietnam’s defense posture and military strategy should be based on a realistic understanding of threat perception and assumptions of its international environment, not an exacerbated continental point of view based on an outdated historical perception.