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Assessing the Strategic Importance of Vietnam: Current Security Dynamics for Japan and India

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Writer: Dr Satoru Nagao
In 1990, US Navy possessed 230 “big surface combatants” while China possessed only 16. By 2013, however, US possession has come down to 101 while that of China has increased to 40 “big surface combatants”. This has been fuelling Chinese assertiveness.  In response Vietnam ordered six new submarines in 2009. Likewise, Malaysia got two submarines in 2009. Singapore, also, increased their submarines from four to five. Indonesia plans to increase submarines from two to twelve. Similarly, Philippines’ and Thailand’s plan to acquire their first submarine are under consideration.
Japan and India need to support Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their military power themselves. Vietnam, because of its strategically important location and its image as a “strong” willed state, becomes priority for both Japan and India. Hence, both countries have started to further their security relations with Vietnam. Recently Japanese PM Abe said “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India." If so, both Japan and India should cooperate to support Vietnam as the first step of India Japan cooperation.

In recent times, China’s rising naval power in the Indo-Pacific Region compared with declining US naval power, which is instigating China’s assertiveness, rightfully reflects the security situation in the said region. Just a quick glance over the last two decades will show the changing balance of proportion in the favour of China. In 1990, US Navy possessed 230 “big surface combatants”* while China possessed only 16. By 2013, however, US possession has come down to 101 while that of China has increased to 40 “big surface combatants”. The theoretical implication of this declining US naval power indicates at the emergence of a power vacuum in the region. By further implication, it substantiates the role of US allies and friendly countries like Japan, India to fill up this power vacuum to ensure stability in Asia. The necessary question is that what exactly should Japan and India do? What is expected of their strategic moves? This question is directly related to the critical point of US-China power balance in Asia. Where exactly is the theatre of US-China power game? And secondly, which country will be the key for Japan and India to stabilise this power balance? In this article, I analyse the importance of Vietnam as a strategically key factor for both Japan and India. The article will also elaborate on how Japan-India-Vietnam Trilateral Strategic Dialogue should be initiated.

In the worst case of escalating power competition, Southeast Asia is likely to be the theatre of power game

Where exactly will be the theatre of the US-China power game in the worst case scenario? During the cold war Central Europe (East and West Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc) was divided between US and Soviet power blocs. There were convulsions like the Berlin-Blockade, the Hungarian rising, Prague Spring, the movement for democratisation in Poland etc. If Central Europe was the theatre of the US-Soviet power game, we can imagine three basic features. Firstly, Central Europe is strategically an important place. Secondly, Central Europe stood separated as a major military power arena. Thirdly, Central Europe was surrounded by great powers like Soviet Union, France, Britain and United States of America.

In the case of Southeast Asia three similarities with the Central Europe can be drawn. Firstly, Southeast Asia region is a strategically important place. Southeast Asia is sitting on key Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) between the Middle East and Northeast Asia. In addition, Southeast Asia is a resource rich region. Secondly, ASEAN is not an integrated region. Thirdly, Southeast Asia is surrounded by great powers like China, Japan, US, Australia and India.

Therefore, if the US-China Power Game will escalate, there is a possibility that Southeast Asia will be US-China theatre of Power Game in the worst case. Under such situation, ASEAN needs to amalgamate their leadership as one integrated power and ensure strong military power to maintain their stability and prosperity.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s statement at the annual Shangari La dialogue, “By 2020, the navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50-50 per cent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60-40 split between those oceans,”, the number of deployed warships in the Pacific will nearly remain the same in 2020 because total number of warships which US Navy possessed is declining. Thus, in 2011, US deployed 31 of their 54 nuclear submarines in the Pacific. This US presence is likely to remain unaltered in near future

Southeast Asia needs to ensure strong military power

To this end, there are two methods ie enhancing military power themselves and finding a trustworthy security provider.

Building submarine forces

Nowadays, most ASEAN countries have been expanding their navy which implies a certain arms race in the region. Submarines are a symbol of arms race in Asia because of two reasons. Firstly, because submarines cannot carry out military operations other than war, submarines are a symbol of regular war. Secondly, submarine is an effective weapon for small countries to tackle threat from great powers. Further, to deter a great power, the weaker power needs a cost effective strategy. And sea denial strategy is relatively a cost effective strategy. Mr Christian Le Miere explained in his article “sea denial is a far more cost-effective strategy than competing for sea control” because “sea denial only requires the perception of threat to cause unease in an opponent that might prevent it committing expensive assets to potentially dangerous situation”. He further says, “the submarine is a more effective sea denial platform, as an opponent is unaware which particular area of the sea might be perilous”1. This is one of the most lucid explanations for submarines being a viable cost-effective strategy.

Japan has shown the will to cooperate with India to check China’s assertiveness. All the facts clearly indicate that Japan-India-Vietnam have strong common interests

Hence, we can understand why Vietnam ordered six new submarines in 2009. Likewise, Malaysia got two submarines in 2009. Singapore, also, increased their submarines from four to five. Indonesia plans to increase submarines from two to twelve. Similarly, Philippines’ and Thailand’s plan to possess their first submarine are under consideration2.

However, China possess 71 submarines which include ten nuclear submarines in 2012. Hence, even if the Southeast Asian countries increase their number of submarines, China will still outnumber them. In addition, the navies in Southeast Asian countries are not integrated. Southeast Asian countries need military support from other countries as security provider.

Japan and India need to support Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their military power themselves. And Vietnam, because of its strategically important location and its image as a “strong” willed state, becomes priority for both Japan and India. Hence, both countries have started to further their security relations with Vietnam

Security provider for Southeast Asian countries

US military power has been playing the role of a stabiliser in Southeast Asia since the cold war. Back then, US had their bases in Thailand and Philippines. Recently, US have again started to show their presence in Southeast Asia. They have concentrated their naval and air power in Guam under Air-Sea battle concept, increased naval exercises, restarted naval assistance to the Philippines, furthered defence relationship with Vietnam, set up new base in Darwin in Australia, will deploy Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore etc to give some examples. However, when compared with bases like Subic Bay in Philippines, which was set up by US during the cold war, new bases located in Darwin and Guam are farther away from China. It appears that China’s military modernisation has somewhat pushed US military bases further east.

And, despite US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s statement at the annual Shangari La dialogue, “By 2020, the navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50-50 per cent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60-40 split between those oceans,3”, the number of deployed warships in the Pacific will nearly remain the same in 2020 because total number of warships which US Navy possessed is declining. Thus, in 2011, US deployed 31 of their 54 nuclear submarines in the Pacific. This US presence is likely to remain unaltered in near future4.

As can be concluded from the aforementioned elaboration, Japan and India should cooperate to support Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their military power themselves.

The prioritised situation of Vietnam

If Japan and India support Southeast Asian countries, which country is likely to get priority? Three reasons, as given below, may be outlined for making a case for Vietnam’s priority.

Strategic location

Firstly, Vietnam is located at a strategically important place and operates as “the gate” to enter Southeast Asia from north. At the same time, if China is to occupy most area of South China Sea based on their territorial claim “nine dotted line”, Vietnam again lands the key position to protect their interest as naval and air bases.

Image of “strong will”

Secondly, Vietnam has the image of “strongly willed” state for deterrence. This image is garnered by facts such as Vietnam defeating France in 1954, defeating USA in 1973 and nearly winning the battle when at war with China in 1979.

Japan and India have already started a 2 + 2 dialogue (Vice Ministerial level) and an annual exercise called Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX). In 2012 was also the first such endeavour by Japan to participate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). Not only that, but on 27 December 2012, just one day after Mr Abe was sworn in as prime minister, he published his ideas about Asia’s security in the report titled, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond”

Vietnam also fosters a similar image with Afghanistan on comparison. For example, just after 9/11, US did not send massive land troopers in Afghanistan. Because Britain and Soviet Union had lost war in Afghanistan in the past, there is a possibility that the image of Afghanistan as “the grave of big powers” affected the decision. The basic thrust of this argument lies in emphasising the role of past factors in the formation of threat perception on the part of the opponent.

Therefore, despite the fact that Vietnam’s small navy will be consisting only of six submarines and small surface combatants, the strong possibility of an enhanced perception of threat of Vietnam’s image cannot be denied.

Japan and India having strong relations with Vietnam

Thirdly, Vietnam has long military relations with India. When Vietnam attacked Pol Pot dominated Cambodia in 1979, India supported Vietnam. Also because both India and Vietnam used similar Soviet era weapons, both have faced shortage of spare parts and new weapons when Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. India has supported Vietnam to refurbish their Soviet era weapons. At present, military relations between the two countries are very strong. Vietnamese Military officers have been receiving training in India for a long time. In 2011, Vietnam asked India to train their newly founded submarine forces. Vietnam also offered permanent berthing rights to India in Na Thrang Port which is located just south of China’s new naval base at Sanya in Hainan Island. Indian state-run ONGC Videsh had won a contract to explore Blocks 127 and 128 in the Phu Khanh basin jointly with Vietnam’s state-run PetroVietnam despite China’s opposition. Because both India and Vietnam use Russian originated weapons like Su-30, Vietnam is planning to buy India’s weapons like BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. In addition, in December 2012, Navy Chief Admiral DK Joshi, while responding to the questions about South China Sea, said “when the requirement is there for situations where country’s interests are involved, for example ONGC Videsh, we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that. Are we holding exercises for that nature, the short answer is yes,”5. Such information refurbishes the strength of India-Vietnam military relations. During the cold war, Japan did not have strong military relations with other countries except US. However, after the cold war, Japan has been gradually changing the security policy. In 2011, two defence ministers from Japan discussed incidents involving China’s obstruction of maritime activities and signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the enhancement of defence cooperation with their Vietnamese counterparts. This MoU includes provisions for regular defence talks at deputy minister level and exchanges between the Japan Self-Defense Force and the Vietnam People’s Army. In the current context, it will be relevant to mention that the key statesmen with whom Mr Shinzo Abe had a telephonic conversation right after being sworn in as the Prime Minister of Japan included his counterparts in India, Dr Manmohan Singh and in Vietnam, Mr Nguyen Tan Dung amongst others from UK, Indonesia, Australia and Russia. Vietnam is also the first foreign country for PM Abe to visit in 2013. At present, Japan is planning to export patrol boats to Vietnam. In addition, because Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister was accepted as new secretary general for ASEAN, Vietnam will be important as a representative ASEAN country for both Japan and India.

Southeast Asia is sitting on key Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) between the Middle East and Northeast Asia. In addition, Southeast Asia is a resource rich region. Secondly, ASEAN is not an integrated region. Thirdly, Southeast Asia is surrounded by great powers like China, Japan, US, Australia and India

Coming back to the military relations between Japan and India, the present scenario is quite conducive to furthering military cooperation between the two countries. Japan and India have already started a 2 + 2 dialogue (Vice Ministerial level) and an annual exercise called Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX). In 2012 was also the first such endeavour by Japan to participate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). Not only that, but on 27 December 2012, just one day after Mr Abe was sworn in as prime minister, he published his ideas about Asia’s security in the report titled, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond”. In this concept, he aimed at preventing the South China Sea from becoming “Lake Beijing”. And “If Japan were to yield, the South China Sea would become even more fortified” and “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific”6. By way of such a statement from the prime minister, Japan has shown the will to cooperate with India to check China’s assertiveness.
All the facts stated above clearly indicate that Japan-India-Vietnam have strong common interests.

Secondly, Vietnam is priority for both India and Japan because of its location, strong will and sharing of common interests with the other two countries.

Conclusion: Japan and India should cooperate to support Vietnam

Along with declining US naval power and China’s naval modernisation, China’s assertiveness has been sharpening. Therefore, because China will rapidly keep modernising their navy, we can expect that China’s assertiveness will be even more strongly felt. If US-China power game escalates, Southeast Asia region will be in danger as the theatre of that Power Game. Therefore, Japan and India need to support Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their military power themselves. And Vietnam, because of its strategically important location and its image as a “strong” willed state, becomes priority for both Japan and India. Hence, both countries have started to further their security relations with Vietnam.

A statement made by PM Abe at the Indian Parliament will further reiterate this argument. He declared “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”7 If so, both Japan and India should cooperate to support Vietnam as the first step of India Japan cooperation. To implement the support, Japan and India need to find what kind of support Vietnam needs for which Japan-India-Vietnam Trilateral Strategic Dialogue will be the best structural mechanism.


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