Regional defense experts argue that Vietnam's recent weapons upgrades do not demonstrate participation in a regional arms race.
Last year, Vietnam acquired new frigates, multi-role jet fighters, Kilo-class submarines and anti-shipping missiles.
Foreign experts argue that the move is purely defensive.
"Vietnam is not participating in any arms race," said Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam's deputy defense minister, in an exclusive interview with Thanh Nien. "We have established our pursuit of a peaceful defense policy and insist that buying new weapons is an extension of our economic growth."
Vinh added that an arms race should be avoided at all costs.
In recent years, defense spending has increased throughout Asia. Many international pundits have noted that some of those increases have been unusually high.
Last November, Newsweek reported that the amount spent on weapons purchases in South-East Asia nearly doubled from 2005- 2009. The magazine reported that China had increased its defense budget by nearly ten percent, in most years as the giant began assembling "a real blue-water navy."
"The purchase of weapons and military equipment reflects a country's defense strategy," asserted Vietnam's Lt. Gen Vinh. "You can't be considered a participant in an arms race while buying items that are principally designed for defense purposes. On the contrary, when a country starts buying weapons that are capable of reaching targets well beyond its borders, such actions could surely lead to concerns from neighboring countries that an arms race is underway."
Professor Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that Vietnam's program of defense modernization "aims to develop capabilities needed in the new regional security environment."
VIETNAM DEFENSE HIGHLIGHTS
"¢ December 2009: Vietnam's White Book on national defense was released, revealing a 2008 defense budget of $1.46 billion and 450,000 active personnel and five million reservists in the Vietnam People's Army.
"¢ May, 2010: The first ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus was held in Vietnam with eight dialogue partners including China, India, Russia, the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
"¢ June, 2010: At the Shangri-la 8 dialogue in Singapore, Vietnamese defense minister Phung Quang Thanh affirmed Vietnam's pledge to enforce defense cooperation for a peaceful, sustainable and developed Asia-Pacific region.
"¢ August, 2010: The first Vietnam-US defense talks were held in Hanoi.
"¢ November, 2010: The first Vietnam-China ministerial-level strategic defense-security dialogue was held in Hanoi.
"¢ December, 2010: The ASEAN Defense Senior Officials' Meeting-Plus Working Group was held in Hanoi.
"Today the Vietnamese military faces very different missions and tasks than it did decade[s] ago," he told Thanh Nien Weekly. "Vietnam must now protect its territorial integrity and national sovereignty in the [East] Sea. This means that the relative role of the navy and air defense-air force is more important."
Thayer defined an all-out arms race as a situation in which two adversaries attempt to outspend one another on weapons, leading to a strain on resources. He described the current situation in the Asia-Pacific region as something short of a full arms race.
"China is developing capabilities designed to offset US technological superiority," Thayer said. "The US in turn seeks to develop the military doctrine and capabilities to negate China's advances. This is usually termed an action-reaction cycle."
"There is not arms race per se in Southeast Asia," he concluded.
Thayer said that China's military modernization and assertiveness in the East Sea has inspired some nations to procure submarines in order to develop anti-access/areadenial capabilities.
"Singapore was first to modernize its submarine fleet," he said. "In 2009 Australia announced a major acquisition program of 12 conventional submarines. Malaysia has followed suit, and then Indonesia. Vietnam joined in with its announcement of the purchase of the Kilo-class conventional submarines. None of these acquisition programs contain elements of an arms race."
Richard Bitzinger, Senior Fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said that Vietnam is both trying to upgrade its military capabilities "vis-à-vis China (given China's growing presence and assertiveness in the East Sea) and simply replacing old and obsolete equipment."
Bitzinger said that there is an "arms dynamic" going on in South East Asia.
"Individual countries are basing their acquisitions on purchases by their neighbors and which is certainly creating an air of insecurity and uncertainly about the intention of their fellow South East Asian nations," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Meanwhile, Professor Peter Dutton at the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute said he considered Vietnam's modernization of its defense force an "echo" of US-China relations.
"A similar dynamic is occurring [between Vietnam and China]," he said. "Vietnam's economic growth has enabled it to purchase greater military capacity to potentially challenge Chinese freedom of action in the [East] Sea."
The East Sea
Lt. Gen. Vinh asserted that Vietnam's dovish approach to the East Sea dispute must be backed up by a sufficient ability to defend its borders.
With an area of more than 3.5 million square kilometers, the East Sea is believed to be rich in oil and other natural resources. It plays an important regional role in maritime transportation.
Over the past several decades, Vietnam has produced legal documents as well as historical and archaeological evidence demonstrating that its citizens have long inhabited and administered the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago, along with the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago.
No other country claimed ownership of the islands until rich oil and gas deposits were discovered around the archipelagos in 1968. In 1974, capitalizing on the withdrawal of American troops, China invaded the Paracel Islands.
"We should publicly claim our territorial sovereignty and affirm our determination to protect it," Lt. Gen. Vinh said. "Besides, it is necessary to build a strong defense force and a solid civilian-based defense policy. We are not favoring the threat or use of violence over other countries, but we can't negotiate with bare hands."
Vinh vowed peaceful solutions to East Sea disputes but said that sovereignty over East Sea would be "vital" to Vietnam's future.
"In our history of building and protecting the nation, our ancestors had two strategies of winning the battle and winning without any battle, he said. Our defense policy now favors the second option." "We plan to handle the East Sea dispute peacefully, based on international law. We'll also seek to strengthen friendships and relations with our neighbors, especially other claimants."
Thayer, the Australian expert, advised Vietnam to seek strength in numbers as it pursues a delicate dance with China over its territorial sovereignty.
"Vietnam should work tirelessly with its ASEAN partners to maintain a united front on the [East] Sea," he said. "This year, Vietnam should work especially closely with Indonesia as ASEAN Chair."
He advised a multidimensional policy, including protest at the actions by any country attempting to assert territorial claims over sovereign Vietnamese territory and a push for the release of a code of conduct by the China-ASEAN Joint Working Group on the South China Sea.
"The opening of [the Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base] is one step forward," he said. "Vietnam could conduct search and rescue exercise and even naval passage exercises with foreign navies that transit the [East] Sea."
Professor Dutton at the US Naval War College stressed that a great deal is riding on the cultivation of effective regional cooperation.
"Each country has an interest in the sustainable development of fisheries resources and other living resources and each also has a growing economy with a predictable and related growth in demand for hydrocarbon resources,'" Dutton said.
"To move forward more productively, what is needed is a regional agreement to find win-win solutions based on approaches that accommodate the interests of all parties. In the meantime, all parties should once again commit to the principles of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and refrain from taking acts that aggravate the situation," he said.
Professor Mark Valencia, a US maritime policy analyst advised that Vietnam could take the issue to the International Court of Justice while it continues to work with ASEAN to broker a fair solution with China.