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Vietnam prepares to better protect its S. China Sea claims

Tuesday, January 10, 2012
By Robert Karniol, The Straits Times/Asia News Network


SINGAPORE -- Vietnam is taking a page from China's strategic playbook to better protect its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. Observers have long understood that the cross-Taiwan Strait military balance would begin tipping in China's favor around now, and that Beijing is pursuing broader security interests beyond this longstanding contest with Taiwan.

But its strategic ambitions require China to have military capabilities that could counter any challenge by the United States.

Together with a broad-based modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and a strengthening of its nuclear deterrent, China initially addressed this problem through its asymmetric “assassin's mace” strategy.

Rather than seeking to match Washington's extensive arsenal, Beijing looked to undermine its effectiveness — for example, through the development of anti-satellite weapons.

This approach has now been refined through a concept known as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), which involves establishing maritime exclusion zones that considerably complicate offensive operations. With this, China is clearly targeting the potential involvement of American aircraft carrier battle groups in any conflict over Taiwan.

The clearest illustration of this strategy involves ongoing efforts by the PLA to develop the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, whose promised range exceeds 1,500 km. This could significantly affect U.S. naval operations in the Asia-Pacific region — and any naval ambitions of China's Asian neighbors.

But A2/AD involves more than any single weapon, as a recent article in American Interest magazine explained:

“China's military is acquiring extended-range, precision-guided ballistic and supersonic cruise missiles to target U.S. and allied ports, airbases and aircraft carriers, making it much more difficult to deploy forces and conduct air strikes,” wrote Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“It is building up its integrated air defense network to locate and attack all but the stealthiest approaching aircraft. Its burgeoning fleet of submarines is intended to hunt down U.S. and allied surface ships.

“China's anti-ship cruise missile batteries can fend off an approaching amphibious force. China has also demonstrated the ability to hold U.S. low-earth orbit satellites at risk (and) it has also established a Fourth Department of the PLA dedicated to conducting offensive cyber network attacks.

“Together, these capabilities enable China to backstop its growing diplomatic assertiveness with an increasingly expansive and credible “keep-out zone,” within which it will be far more difficult for U.S. forces to operate.”

Thomas argues that Washington's response must include support allowing its friends and allies in the region to develop their own A2/AD capabilities.

But, irrespective of U.S. policy, this is something Hanoi has already figured out.

Like China, Vietnam faces the same dilemma in seeking to counter a potential adversary of superior military capability.

Hanoi's acquisitions of the Su-30MK multi-role fighter and the Gepard-class frigate are indicative of its A2/AD effort. Rather than looking at the numbers involved, consider the armament.

The fighter's weapons fit is thought to include the Kh-59MK anti-ship cruise missile which has a 115-km range, while the frigate carries the Kh-35E anti-ship missile. The latter has an operational range of 130 km and can attack vessels of up to 5,000 tons.

Hanoi's outstanding order for six Kilo- class submarines fits significantly into this mix as well. The weapons fit is expected to include the sea-skimming 3M-54 Klub anti-ship missile, ranging up to 300 km.

Meanwhile, land-based coastal defense has recently been strengthened through the Extended Range Artillery Munition obtained from Israel, a short-range ballistic missile effective beyond 150km, while air defense capabilities were bolstered by three sophisticated Vera passive radio locators from Czech Republic. Washington initially blocked the Vera sale but later reversed its decision.

These and similar initiatives show that Vietnam would be no pushover were the PLA to try seizing the South China Sea. Mirroring Beijing's A2/AD strategy, Hanoi is introducing capabilities that threaten to make any Chinese adventurism there more complex and more costly than a simple comparison of air and naval assets suggests.

Vietnamese military planners, with decades of combat experience behind them, have reached this solution themselves. But Thomas, in his article for American Interest, comes to a similar conclusion.

“The most important shift the United States needs to make is to become a systemic enabler of a more distributed network of allied defenses,” he wrote. “Rather than designing military systems principally to arm U.S. forces, America must help allies build their own anti-access capabilities.”

Japan is among those already considering how it might proceed. But beyond that, one analyst told The Straits Times: “There is a clear trend emerging.”

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