The People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) or Chinese Navy has been making a major transition in the past two decades. It transformed from a coastal defence force into a naval force that is developing blue water navy capabilities. Confident with its new naval capabilities and the means to project military power through the region, China become more assertive, especially regarding the South China Sea.
The South China Sea contains large deposits of oil and gas and the several islands and reefs are all claimed by different countries. China doesn’t have large oil and gas deposits of its own and needs to import these. China’s sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) stretch all the way from the Chinese coast to the Middle East and are vulnerable to blockade and interdiction. Having access to oil and gas deposits closer to home will secure China’s energy dependency and keeps it economy running.
Thanks to a powerful economy, the PLAN has been expanding greatly in the past decade and improved qualitatively. The PLAN is by now the biggest naval player in the South China Sea and outnumbers every other country that claims the South China Sea. However Vietnam has managed in the past years to expand and modernize its naval forces as well. Although the Vietnamese Navy still dwarfs the PLAN it is capable of deploying modern warships, especially submarines in a sufficient number to cause concern for the PLAN.
Strength of the Vietnamese Navy
Vietnam lacks the huge economy that China possesses. Because of that it will never have the kind of funding to expand its navy at the same pace China does. But what Vietnam is lacking in numbers, it makes up with quality. China has a large fleet but it still is running behind technologically compared to other modern nations. Although China is closing this gap it allows Vietnam to deploy modern warships to counter China’s numbers.
Most of the Vietnamese warships are supplied by Russia, a country that also supplies military technology to China. This means that Vietnam has access to the same modern technology as China, allowing it keep pace with China’s maritime developments.
Vietnams main surface units are two Gepard class frigates build by Russia with two more under construction. These ships are each capable of firing SS-N-25 Switchblade anti-ship missiles. These are modern subsonic missiles that entered service in the Russian armed forces in 2003. It is designed to attack vessels up to a tonnage of 5.000 tonnes. A SS-N-25 Switchblade missile is thus created to take out frigates, the main type of surface warship in the PLAN.
|Gepard class frigate HQ-011 Da Nang|
Vietnam also ordered four Sigma class corvettes at the Dutch frim DAMEN of the Sigma 9814 design. It is unsure what weapon systems Vietnam will be installing on these ships but it is likely that Vietnam will look once again to Russia to supply the weapon systems. More important is that the first two frigates will be built in the Netherlands and the last two in Vietnam. This allows Vietnam to learn how to build these kinds of ships on their own and thereby developing their shipbuilding capabilities.
Vietnam greatest strength however lies in its modern fleet of six Russian Kilo class submarines. Already three of them are in service. These submarines are often described as being a “black hole” because they are very quiet. China already acquired Kilo class submarines and used the design to develop its own domestic build diesel-electric submarines like the Type 041 Yuan class submarines.
Even with the PLAN vastly outnumbering in submarines one has to take into account that China has to face several rivals in this area as well as the US Navy. Even with superior numbers a lot will come down on how well submarine crews are trained and ready to operate in the waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam as a strategic partner
Vietnam is developing a modern navy and in fact it is the only modern navy in the South China Sea to challenge the PLAN, or at least to let China be concerned about the Vietnamese navy strength. It is this naval strength that makes Vietnam an interesting strategic partner for both India as the US.
India is a main rival of China and both countries still have border disputes on their common borders. China’s support for countries as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar give India the feeling that China is trying to surround and contain India. The presence of PLAN naval units in the Indian Ocean to patrol and protect the Chinese SLOCs as well as several economic projects in different ports throughout the Indian Ocean create the idea that China is developing the means to maintain a continuous naval presence in the Indian Ocean. These projects, called the String of Pearls span all the way from Myanmar over Sri Lanka to Pakistan and do surround India.
It is vital for India to look for means to keep PLAN naval units out of the Indian Ocean and Vietnam seems like the logic partner for it. If the Vietnamese Navy can tie as much PLAN naval units down in the South China Sea then there are less PLAN warships to patrol in the Indian Ocean. Vietnam gains from this as well. The backing of the Indian Navy, another emerging large naval power, makes Vietnam a more serious player and it allows Vietnam to take a more assertive stance against China.
Vietnam and India already have been developing their military cooperation that includes mutual exercises in order to learn how each of these two navies operate and how they can operate together.
Vietnam can even be a strategic partner for the United States even if it is only in an indirect way. Any conflict in the South China Sea will see multiple nations being involved, including the Philippines. The United States already supports the Philippines even to the point of using naval bases and selling coast guard cutters to modernise the navy of the Philippines.
The presence of the US Navy supporting the Philippines on one side of the South China Sea and Vietnam operating on the other side of the South China Sea will mean that China will have to divide forces to cover all areas. Thus the presence of the Vietnamese Navy will dilute the PLAN naval strength in this area in case of a conflict.