Due to a lack of security agreements and codes of conduct, East Asian countries continue their naval arms race, increasing the risk of a military confrontation as rapidly expanding economies vie for scarce resources.
The first of six Russian kilo-class submarines arrived at Cam Ranh naval base just in time for the New Year. The sub, named Hanoi, is being hailed by Vietnam's media and government.
According to Vietnam expert Carlyle A. Thayer, the boat's arrival marks "a giant step forward" for the Southeast Asian nation in terms of defense capabilities. The emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia says the Vietnamese military is now capable of operating on four levels: on land, at sea, in the air and under water.
Alongside Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, Vietnam is now a member of the South East Asian club of countries with submarine capabilities. However, Thayer believes that it will take some time until the submarines are fully operational, as Vietnam still lacks overall strategic planning, trained sailors and the technical know-how. "Technical support from Russia will be needed for at least 10 years, if not longer," Thayer said.
With its purchase of the submarines, Vietnam is following a general trend in the region. China's first aircraft carrier has been cruising the East China Sea since September 2012 and Japan recently announced the purchase of a helicopter carrier. According to a panel of experts from the Hamburg-based Körber Foundation, "a military buildup and modernization is taking place in the Asia-Pacific region."
The experts say that the reasons behind the build-up are linked to the economic interests of the East Asian nations. The littoral countries are seeking to tap into new natural resources. This is why the nations bordering the East and South China Sea have been quarreling for years over islands or complete groups of islands of strategic importance which could legitimize claims to raw materials and fishing grounds.
Gerhard Will, Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) is skeptical about the naval buildup, as he believes it will not lead to a balance of power. "While Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia can deploy up to six submarines, China alone has more than 60 of them; so this can't seriously be an attempt to strike a military balance."
According to Thayer, Vietnam cannot hope to defeat China or anther major power in a conventional naval engagement. "But Vietnam can pose a risk to a would-be adversary that it will suffer major consequences if it attacks Vietnam."
Analysts believe there is another reason behind this. "The purchases are more than just a show of force," says Will, referring to the overwhelming coverage of the submarines in Vietnamese media. Vietnam's Communist Party is facing a legitimacy crisis. The purchase of the submarines is designed to show that the party is defending the nation's interests by all available means.
But the domestic maneuver also poses foreign policy risks for Vietnam. "This buildup strategy will remain dangerous as long as no security frame is in place and everyone is keen on involving the military," said Will.
In December 2013, a US guided missile cruiser operating in international waters in the South China Sea was forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship maneuvering nearby. In this context, Will recalls events that took place during the climax of the Cold War. In 1972, the US and the Soviet Union agreed on how war ships were to conduct themselves in the event of encounters with other ships on international waters. The aim of the agreement was to avoid incidents with unforeseeable consequences.
Code of conduct required
Will believes such an accord is now urgently needed, as the territory now being disputed in the East China Sea is much smaller. He is also of the opinion that such an agreement would have to be multilateral and applicable to the whole of the region.
But there seem to be no plans for such an agreement. Not even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has set binding regulations for its members, despite the fact that the organization officially strives for cooperation on a security level. Even more distant seems the draft of a frequently invoked code of conduct, designed to comprehensively regulate issues regarding maritime law, ranging from maritime routes to sovereignty, fishing and mining rights.