Recently, the Vietnamese put in a huge order for 6 kilo submarines for $1.8 billion. After this, I read some articles like this one that claims Vietnam is sending China a message with this purchase. This blog will attempt to look at the recent competition between China and Vietnam over South China Sea.
I will try to give you guys an overview of the conflict between Vietnam and China. However, I'm far from an expert in this area, so please do excuse me if I'm wrong in certain areas. After Vietnam War, China's relationship with Vietnam deteriorated dramatically declined and Vietnam joined in Soviet Union's encirclement of China. In order to teach Vietnam a lesson, China invaded Vietnam in 1979 and suffered huge casualty, but did teach Vietnam a lesson. Then in 1988, they had a minor naval battle over the disputed islands in Spratly. Basically to this day, the two countries still have disputes over ownership of the islands and control of South China Sea. In spite of their growing economic relationship in the recent years, the tension shown through nationalism in the two countries have never really subsided.
Unfortunately for Vietnam, the military balance has tilted significantly toward China since 1988. Back then, PLA only had several Ludas and Jianghu as its main surface combatants in the South Sea Fleet and the air force couldn't support any of its operations in 1988. In fact, they developed a refueling version of H-6 after 1988 specifically to support future operations over there. 20 years later, SSF is the crown jewel of PLAN's modernization effort and also could be supported by the air force with the new fleet of refuelers. So, what has Vietnam done to improve itself in the recent years.
It has pretty much went with Russian weapons over the past decade. The problem that Vietnam has is that its area of dispute is close enough to China that it will have to deal with both China's air force and navy in any confrontation. Countries further south like Singapore, Malaysia and Australia both far larger threat to PLAN, because PLAAF simply can't fly that far. With a military budget of $3.6 billion and troubles in economy, Vietnam obviously realizes that it can't compete with PLA. So, it's actually adopting the same strategy that PLAN is supposedly adopting against USN. Basically, Vietnam is trying to buy a lot small, fast ships equipped with long range missiles (and nothing else much to offer) + quiet submarines. Of course with it's limited resource, the scale that Vietnam can implement this is much smaller than what China can. In the recent years, they've ordered a number of Project 12418 Molniya missile patrol boat, fitted with the Uran AShM, from the Russians. This gives them a fast attacking missile boat that can launch many missiles, so I guess it serves the role of 022 in PLAN. Although in comparison, it is larger, slower, less stealthy and not as network centralized. They also ordered 2 Project 1166.1 "Gepard" corvettes (and possibly more in the future), which have some level of self defense and also carrying more AshM. I believe Vietnam also bought some Yakhont missiles from Russia, but I'm not sure which platform will be deployed with this extremely potent missile. Vietnam also recently ordered for 12 Su-30MK2s from Russia which will be able to carry a range of advanced AAMs and AShMs. I think this is on top of the 12 Su-27s and 4 Su-30MK2s it already purchased from Russia. Although, I haven't found any article indicating how much weapons it purchased along with the fighter jets. And finally, Vietnam made the huge purchase of 6 kilo submarines, which also would theoretically provide a huge threat for PLAN surface combatants.
The Su-30 and Kilo deals were struck very close to each other, so it created a lot of speculation that Vietnam was challenging China in the South China Sea. I would agree that Vietnam is making a serious attempt to stick up for itself, but that its efforts really are more for display than anything else. I'm extremely critical of their deal for the 6 kilo submarines. For a navy that basically has no training with submarine up to this point, it will take a lot of resources to train the crew needed for the submarines. On top of this, I find it puzzling that Vietnam would go for Kilo, when a smaller number of more advanced submarines like U-214, Scorpene and Amur would be far better choices (I'm not sure if there is a EU embargo on Vietnam or not). China has been operating, doing maintenance/upgrade and conducting ASW exercises against Kilo submarines for years, so it would probably have an easier time hunting down Kilo than a submarine of the same generation. In PLAN service, Kilo submarines also are seen much less frequently on patrols and much more frequently in shipyards undergoing maintenance/overhaul work than Song Submarines. Even the much talked about Club missile was not test launched until a year and half after most of the kilos were delivered to China. Clearly, PLAN found it much easier to operate Song submarines than Kilos. I'm not sure if that's just PLAN's preference or a general availability problem with Kilo submarines. I think purchasing something like SU-30MK2 makes a lot of sense for Vietnam, because of Su-30's range and long range strike capability. Although, I do think su-30 is over-hyped and not as potent as some people may think.
Overall, Vietnam certainly made a lot of improvements recently with all of its purchases from Russia. The systems they purchased are heavily geared toward ASuW. Their strategy is similar to what PLAN is adopting against USN. Unfortunately, their most advanced weapons like Su-30 and Kilo are also in service with PLA, which would reduce the effectiveness against their intended foe. Basically, China has operated these weapons long enough to know how best to counter them. If possible, I think Vietnam should diversify its purchases away from just Russia.