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Understanding Vietnam's rocket launcher deployment in the Spratlys

Last week, international media widely reported that Vietnam had quietly deployed an unknown number of Extended Range Artillery (Extra) rocket launchers on five features in the Spratlys. These state-of-the-art mobile rocket artillery systems are reportedly capable of striking runways and military installations on nearby artificial islands built by China recently.

Although Vietnam's Foreign Ministry dismissed the information as "inaccurate", its Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh had stated in June this year that Hanoi reserved the right to deploy such weapons for self-defence purposes.

This development testifies to the fact that the temperature in the South China Sea is rising, and claimant states risk being pushed into military escalations that may eventually undermine regional peace and stability.

That said, Vietnam's deployment of the rocket launchers should not come as a surprise. Instead, it is a logical development, given the recent trajectory of the South China Sea dispute.

First, in order to better protect its interests in the South China Sea, Vietnam has pursued a military modernisation programme for some time. For example, according to statistics by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Vietnam's total arms imports during 2011-2015 represented a 699 per cent increase from 2006-2010, turning the country into the eighth-largest arms importer in the world during the same period. Most of the newly acquired weapons and equipment are related to maritime capabilities.

The Extra rocket launchers that Vietnam deployed to the Spratlys are known to be imported from Israel, one of the emerging defence partners of Vietnam. They contribute to Hanoi's efforts to build up a credible level of deterrence against possible attacks on the features in Spratlys currently under its control.

In that sense, the report is not necessarily a bad thing for Vietnam. In order to ensure effective deterrence, apart from developing credible capabilities to impose costs, one also needs to make such capabilities known to the rival it wants to deter. Hence, the reported deployment of rocket launchers can help Hanoi convey a message, especially to Beijing, about not only Vietnam's available capabilities, but also its political determination to protect its South China Sea interests.

A Vietnam Marine Police boat (foreground) in the South China Sea observing a Chinese Coast Guard ship about 200km off the Vietnamese coast in 2014. The two countries saw a rise in tensions that year, after China moved an oil drilling platform close to Vietnam's central coast. PHOTO: REUTERS

Second, from Hanoi's perspective, the deployment is not a provocative or escalatory move. Instead, it is seen as a necessary defensive reaction to offset threats recently initiated by Beijing in the South China Sea. In particular, the oil rig crisis in 2014 when China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil drilling platform to 119 nautical miles off Vietnam's central coast, and China's construction and militarisation of seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, have acutely alerted Vietnam about China's strategic intentions as well as Vietnam's vulnerabilities in the South China Sea. Strong yet well-calibrated responses are therefore warranted to better protect its interests there.

While the exact timing of the deployment is unknown, it possibly took place well before the news was broken last week. Indeed, some sources indicated that Hanoi might have started considering the deployment as early as May last year, when there were reports of China's deployment of mobile artillery vehicles on one of its artificial islands. In any case, the rising level of perceived threats emanating from China's recent militarisation of its artificial islands obviously further encourages Hanoi to offer a strong response.

From a historical point of view, the deployment reflects the broader pattern of Vietnam's traditional China policy, one that combines deference and defiance elements.

As the junior partner in the relationship, Vietnam has always been keen to maintain peaceful and stable ties with Beijing. In the pre-modern era, it was also willing to offer deference to China by joining the China-centred tributary system. However, Vietnam was also willing to stand up to China on various occasions when its sovereignty, autonomy and territorial integrity were infringed upon.

In more recent decades, overall Vietnam-China relations have improved significantly, but territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea continue to be a major challenge for both countries. However, the unprecedented level of bilateral economic exchanges helps to keep the two countries from falling out with each other.

Specifically, China is now Vietnam's largest trade partner, accounting for about one fifth of Vietnam's annual total trade. China is also the ninth-largest foreign investor in Vietnam. Therefore, while Vietnam tends to act tough to protect its maritime interests, it is unwilling to allow the South China Sea disputes to escalate into an armed conflict that will doom the broader interests brought about by relations with China.

In sum, Vietnam's deployment of the rocket launchers in the Spratlys should be seen in the broader context of recent transformations in the South China Sea dispute, as well as Vietnam's traditional handling of China.

The move, mainly for defensive purpose, should not generate concerns among regional countries. To be sure, a military conflict with a far more powerful China is the last thing Vietnam would like to stumble into.

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