“Understanding Vietnam’s Rocket Launcher Deployment in the Spratlys”, a Commentary by Le Hong Hiep

Commentary 2016/46, 15 August 2016

On 10 August 2016, it was widely reported in the media that Vietnam had quietly deployed an unknown number of 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 recently built by China.

Although Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the information as “inaccurate”, its Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh stated in June 2016 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 be seen 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 modernization program for some time. These EXTRA rocket launchers, known to be acquired from Israel, contribute to Vietnam’s efforts to build up a level of deterrence against possible attacks on the Spratlys features 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. As such, 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.

Second, from Hanoi’s perspective, the rocket launcher 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 Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig crisis in 2014, and China’s construction and militarization 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.

From a historical point of view, the development also 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-centered 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.

Vietnam’s deployment of the rocket launchers in the Spratlys should therefore be considered 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 neither generate too much concern 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.

Le Hong Hiep  is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.