Vietnam's Got a New South China Sea Strategy
In 1287, Gen. Omar Khan of the Yuan Dynasty led a sizeable invasion force, including numerous war junks, against Dai Viet (present day Vietnam). With battle-hardened Mongols forming the vanguard, it seemed as if the campaign would be a walkover for China. But a naval battle the following year proved otherwise. In the estuary of the Bach Dang River near Ha Long Bay, Dai Viet general Tran Hung Dao repeated the feat accomplished by the earlier, celebrated general Ngo Quyen against the Southern Han Chinese invaders, back in the year 938.
Following Ngo’s approach, Tran planted iron-tipped stakes in the river’s northern distributaries—Chanh, Kenh and Rut—and waited until high tide to lure the Mongol fleet into the shallow waters. When the tide turned, those Mongol war junks were impaled upon those stakes. The much smaller Dai Viet war canoes then swarmed around the trapped Mongol fleet and their crews hurled “mud oil” grenades—little ceramic bottles filled with naphtha and sealed with betel-nut husk, which also acted as a fuse when lit—at the immobile war junks, setting them and their hapless crews ablaze. The Battle of Bach Dang saw grievous losses to the Yuan invasion fleet.
But unlike the battle in 938, which contributed to the end of the first Chinese domination over Dai Viet, the naval victory in 1288 did not alter the bilateral relationship—the Tran Dynasty accepted Yuan suzerainty until the latter’s demise.
The two naval battles at Bach Dang, and contemporary examples in the French Indochina Wars and the Vietnam War, as well as the brief but bloody Sino-Vietnamese border war in the late 1970s, highlighted Vietnamese ingenuity in conducting asymmetric warfare against a stronger foe. Yet the Battle of Bach Dang constituted a rare example of how the Vietnamese could pull off what were essentially land-based tactics in the maritime realm. Also of note is the fact that the naval battles at Bach Dang were fought in shallow waters close to the Vietnamese shores, instead of the open waters of the South China Sea, where Mongol war junks could optimize their combat performance.
No wonder, then, that in March 1988 the Vietnamese suffered a defeat at Chinese hands during a clash in the open waters of the disputed Spratly Islands. The Chinese navy proved more than a match for the Vietnamese, unaccustomed to fighting naval battles in the open waters, who found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. That battle was an attempt to stop the Chinese from encroaching upon what Hanoi claimed as sovereign territory in the Spratlys, and with the Vietnamese forces extended so far from the Vietnamese coast and shorn of quick and substantial reinforcements, the outcome of that battle was quick and decisive. Retaking those features, forcibly snatched from Vietnamese hands following the naval skirmish, was out of the question for Hanoi’s political and military leaders.
The Vietnamese were cognizant of their naval limitations. There was no way they could repeat their ancestors’ feat at Bach Dang against the Chinese. Hence, it has been taken for granted—almost by conventional wisdom—that in view of the gaping and still growing naval asymmetry between the Chinese and Vietnamese, Hanoi must adhere to a sea-denial strategy. Essentially, sea denial envisages denying or disrupting the adversary’s access to maritime areas of interest, while denying the one practicing this strategy free use of the same space. Wu Shang-su, for instance, has argued that Vietnam, standing little chance against Chinese military aggression, has no choice but to adopt a sea denial strategy. Furthermore, he added, a sea-denial strategy fits well within the broader ambit of Hanoi’s post–Cold War policy, emphasizing such principles as independence, non-alliance and defensive defense.
There is also a fiscal imperative, given that Vietnam continues to prioritize its socioeconomic development set in motion under the “Doi Moi” (Renovation) reforms, under way since the early 1990s (also a time that saw a downsizing in the manpower of the People’s Army of Vietnam). “The state budget is still limited while we have to invest in many significant areas such as transport infrastructure, resources for socio-economic development, welfare for the people who served the country well, healthcare and education,” said then defense minister Gen. Phung Quang Thanh in December 2014, who added, “so investment in defense should be taken gradually and be suited to our capabilities. We have two parallel tasks: protecting and building the country. We do not underestimate any of them but if we focus too many resources on defense, we will lack investment in development. Because of a lack of investment in development, we will lack future resources for investment in defense.”
Yet it would be misleading to view the Vietnamese as fatalistic. They have long recognized the limits of a traditional sea-denial approach, and thus have sought to enhance their strategy to forestall Chinese military aggression in the South China Sea.