Vietnam’s Military is on High Alert as Tensions Escalate in the South China Sea

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000313-D-2987S-062 Vietnamese Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Pham Van Tra (left) escorts Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (right) as he inspects the troops during an armed forces honors ceremony at the Ministry of Defense Guest House in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 13, 2000. Cohen is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel. (Released)

Key units of Vietnam’s armed forces are on high-combat readiness as the country accelerates a decade-long modernization of its military — Hanoi’s largest such push since the height of the Vietnam War.

Senior officers tell Reuters the country is heightening defenses to deter China, and to make sure Hanoi can “defend itself on all fronts,” as tensions with Beijing increase over the disputed South China Sea.

Both communist nations have conflicting territorial claims in the region, particularly in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, which China occupied following clashes with Vietnamese forces between the 70s and 80s.

“We don’t want to have a conflict with China and we must put faith in our policy of diplomacy,” said one senior Vietnamese government official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity. “But we know we must be ready for the worst.”

To get ready, Hanoi is relaxing its stringently independent foreign policy and reaching out far beyond its borders to boost its military through arms purchases, personnel training, and intelligence sharing.

Russia and India remain Vietnam’s largest suppliers of weapons.

Hanoi currently is building its nascent navy with Kilo-class submarines purchased from Russia. In recent months, these submarines have been patrolling the South China Sea.The Kremlin has also supplied Hanoi with S-300 surface-to-air missiles.

Vietnam is seeking more jet-fighter bombers from Russia.

Sources tell Reuters that Hanoi is also in talks with American and European arms manufactures to purchase unmanned drones and maritime patrol vessels. Israel has provided it with early-warning surveillance radars.

“They are not doing this for national day parades … they are building real military capabilities,” said Tim Huxley, a regional security expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore, in an interview with Reuters.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Vietnam has surpassed its South East Asian neighbors in military spending during the last decade.

The terms “high combat readiness” and the “new situation” are frequently being used in lectures by officers at military bases, as well as in articles published by the People’s Army of Vietnam.

The “new sitiation” refers to the likelyhood of armed conflict breaking out in the South China Sea. Every year, this waterway gives passage to trillions of dollars in ship-borne goods including most oil imported by China.

Beijing claims virtually the entire region, which is also contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The South China Sea also served as a battlefild between China and South Vietnam in 1974; and between China and Vietnam in 1988.

Recently, China’s installment of an oil rig in the disputed waters for 10 weeks led to anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

Despite the shared political ideologies between China and Vietnam, the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 remains a bloody memory for both nations.

Today, Vietnam’s most elite military unit Division 308 stands on high alert as it guards the northern entries to Hanoi.

“Combat readiness is the top priority of the division, of the Ministry of Defense and the country,” said Colonel Le Van Hai. We can deal with any sudden or unexpected situation … We are ready.”.

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