Putin vows to boost Russian military supplies to Vietnam amid South China Sea dispute

The Russian president promises to expand arms supplies in a gesture certain to raise tensions with China amid maritime disputes

South China Morning Post, 12 November, 2013 (updated 13 November, 2013) 

[Russian President Vladimir Putin reviews a guard of honour with Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to expand military supplies to Vietnam, a move that looks set to raise concerns from Beijing as tensions over the South China Sea linger.

In the latest sign of deepening military ties between the former allies, Putin made the announcement yesterday during a one-day state visit to Vietnam.

While still in a headlock with Vietnam over maritime territorial disputes, China sees closer Russia and Vietnam military ties as a move to counterbalance its rising power in the region.

Beijing is likely to be closely watching any discussion on future military co-operation between Russia and Vietnam during Putin's visit, according to Zhang Mingliang , an expert on China's relations with Southeast Asian countries from Guangzhou's Jinan University.

"Russia has been the biggest supporter of Vietnam in the South China Sea," said Zhang, citing submarine deals and a Russian oil company's presence in Vietnam's claimed waters.

One key area of scrutiny, Zhang said, would be any possible co-operation between the two countries in the Cam Ranh Bay, a strategically important naval base in the south central coast of Vietnam. Russia will reportedly provide technicians to help Vietnam prepare the base.

Russia has been Vietnam's biggest weapons supplier. Last week, Russia handed over the first of six Kilo diesel-electric submarines to Vietnam. Military analysts say the vessels would significantly boost Vietnam's efforts to create a deterrent against China's naval power.

Relations between China and Southeast Asian neighbours, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, have been strained by territorial disputes in the South China Sea over the past few years. Since taking power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made improving neighbourly ties a priority.

After a "constructive and open" meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang yesterday, Putin said the two had specific discussions on military co-operation.

"We plan to expand the supplies of Russian military products to Vietnam," he said.

Also high on the agenda were energy agreements that would explore resources in the Arctic and build 13 nuclear plants in Vietnam.

"Russia is working with Vietnam not only to build the country's first nuclear power plant, but also train staff and set up a science and technology centre," Putin said.

Russia's Rosneft yesterday signed an agreement to allow Vietnam's Petrovietnam to explore oil and gas in the Pechora Sea in the Arctic off northwest Russia. Russian state monopoly Gazprom also agreed to jointly invest with Petrovietnam in the US$3 billion Dung Quat refinery in central Vietnam

Other agreements reportedly include economics, trade, investment, science and technology.

Media reports in Vietnam and Russia hailed Putin's visit as a move to further enhance bilateral ties, which was upgraded to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" last year.

Putin will leave Vietnam for South Korea today.

Vietnam Gradually Warms Up to US Military

The gradual evolution of U.S.-Vietnamese political and defense ties reflects Hanoi’s caution.

By Carl Thayer, November 06, 2013

Last month the United States and Vietnam held two important annual high-level security meetings in Washington: the 6th Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue and the 4th Defense Policy Dialogue.

The 6th U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue was held on October 1 at deputy minister level. The U.S. was represented by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Tom Kelly, and Vietnam was represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Ha Kim Ngoc.

This dialogue has a wide-ranging agenda that touches on the full-spectrum of political, security and defense issues of concern. This is reflected in the composition of the representatives that attend.

The U.S. delegation included representatives from the Department of State, Department of Defense, Agency for International Development and the U.S. Pacific Command. The Vietnamese delegation included representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of National Defense.

The agenda for the 6th U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue included counterterrorism, counternarcotics, human trafficking, cyber, law enforcement, defense and security, disaster response, search and rescue, war legacy issues and cooperation in regional organizations such as ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.

The 4th U.S.-Vietnam Defense Policy Dialogue is also held at deputy minister level and involves officials from their respective defense ministries. The fourth dialogue was held in Washington on October 28-29. The U.S. was represented by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Vikram Singh, and Vietnam was represented by Deputy Minister for National Defense Senior Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh.

Both dialogues were held within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation signed on September 19, 2011 and the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Statement of July 25, 2013.

The 2011 MOU set out five priority areas for bilateral defense cooperation: regular high-level dialogues between the Department of Defense and the Ministry of National Defense, maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and peacekeeping. The MOU, in fact, was a codification of activities that were already being carried out. The MOU was also a transparency measure designed to mitigate – to the extent possible – Beijing’s fears of U.S.-Vietnam military collusion against China.

The U.S.-Vietnam defense dialogues are conducted in the shadow of Vietnam War era legacies. Vietnam uses these occasions to announce progress in the search for American service personnel Missing in Action (MIA). For example, during the June 2012 visit to Hanoi by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Vietnam announced that it was opening three new sites for MIA searches. This statement came on the eve of the 5th Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue. At the 2nd U.S.-Vietnam Defense Policy Dialogue in September 2011 Vietnam handed over six dossiers related to MIA searches.

Washington uses the occasion of defense dialogues to reaffirm continuing commitment to clearing up Vietnam War era unexploded ordnance and the toxic effects of Agent Orange. At the 2nd Defense Policy Dialogue, for example, the U.S. stated that it would continue to assist Vietnam in overcoming the “aftermath of war,” a euphemism for unexploded ordnance and dioxin poisoning.

U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation under the 2011 MOU has proceeded at a cautious and gradual pace. Just prior to the signing of the MOU the first U.S. Military Sealift Command vessel underwent minor repairs in Cam Ranh Bay. Four other Military Sealift Command vessels were serviced there after the MOU was signed. Each repair was valued at under half a million US dollars.

In October 2011 the commandant of Vietnam’s National Defense Academy addressed staff and students at the U.S. National Defense University. For the first time, Vietnam sent one student each to the U.S. National War College and the U.S. Naval Staff College.

From June to August 2012, Vietnam sent its first observer to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). In July 2012, the U.S. hosted Vietnam’s Steering Board 501, which has responsibility for dealing with unexploded ordnance. In October of the same year, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier hosted a fly out by a delegation of Vietnamese officials in international waters off Vietnam’s eastern coast.

In 2012, Vietnam hosted visits by a number of senior U.S. officials, including the Commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet (January); Panetta (June); the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet (July); and a delegation from the U.S. National Defense University (October). In April, Vietnam hosted the third naval exchange activity in the port of Da Nang involving salvage and disaster training but no live-firing exercises or exchange of combat skills.

In 2013 Vietnam hosted the 3rd Defense Policy Dialogue in January and the fourth non-combat naval exchange activity in Da Nang the following April.

In a significant development, last June the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff hosted the first visit by the Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army (and Deputy Minister of National Defense), General Do Ba Ty. Ty’s delegation included the commander of Vietnam’s Air Force and the deputy commanders of the Navy and General Intelligence Department. His trip included a visit to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state suggesting future possible joint activities.

A high-point in U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations was reached in July 2013 when U.S. President Barack Obama hosted his counterpart, Truong Tan Sang, at the White House. The two presidents agreed to open a “new phase of bilateral relations” by forming a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership.

The Joint Statement issued by the two presidents included nine points. Point six addressed war legacy issues and point seven covered defense and security cooperation. No major initiatives were announced in keeping with the evolutionary nature of bilateral defense ties.

Both presidents expressed satisfaction with the implementation of the 2011 MOU and reaffirmed their commitment to its full implementation. Both agreed to continue the Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue and the Defense Policy Dialogue.

As for future cooperation, both presidents decided to expand cooperation to enhance Vietnam’s search and rescue and disaster response capabilities and step up cooperation in non-traditional security. The Joint Statement flagged counterterrorism, maritime law enforcement, transitional crime (piracy, high-tech crime, and narcotics, human and wildlife smuggling) and cyber security. President Obama offered to assist with training and other support for Vietnam’s first involvement in a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

The agenda for the 4th U.S.-Vietnam Defense Policy Dialogue included regional and international security issues, maritime security, war legacy issues (including information on Vietnamese MIAs), cooperation in multilateral forums such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, U.S. assistance for Vietnam’s first commitment to UN peacekeeping, and the cooperation plan for 2014.

Vinh handed over four files containing information on new MIA search sites. Singh pledged increased support for cleaning up Agent Orange and clearing up unexploded ordnance.

What was new? The two sides agreed to step up cooperation between their navies and their respective defense academies and institutions. A MOU was signed on cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnamese Coast Guards (formerly Marine Police).

The gradual evolution of U.S.-Vietnamese political, security and defense dialogues reflects Vietnam’s cautious approach in keeping its relations with China and the United States evenly balanced. Vietnam, for example, has so far refrained from engaging in military exercises with the U.S.

Vietnam limits the U.S. Navy to one port call per year and continues to bar U.S. Navy warships from entry to Cam Ranh Bay. Also, Vietnam has yet to approve a request made by Secretary Panetta in June 2012 to set up an Office of Defense Cooperation in the US Embassy in Hanoi.

Vietnam is also displeased at what it considers an inadequate U.S. commitment to clearing up the legacies of war. In an interview immediately after the 4th Defense Policy Dialogue, General Vinh stated, “a better defense relationship should be based on the efficiency of practical cooperation, including overcoming [the] aftermath of war… Generally speaking, the U.S. has offered Vietnam active cooperation in this issue, but it not enough as the consequences of war are terrible.” General Vinh also noted that in his opinion “we must build strategic trust between the two countries’ top leaders…”

This remark may be a reference to continuing U.S. restrictions on the sale of arms to Vietnam despite direct requests by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh to Secretary Panetta in June 2012.

Under the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations the U.S. can only sell Vietnam certain non-lethal defense items and services on a case-by-case basis. The sale of lethal weapons and some non-lethal items such as night vision goggles are still banned.

Recently Vietnam took the initiative to address the issue of strategic trust. In late August, on the sidelines of the ADMM Plus meeting in Brunei, Vietnam’s Defense Minister invited Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to visit in 2014. Hagel accepted.

Under an agreement reached in 2003, Vietnam and the United States agreed to exchange alternate visits by their defense ministers every three years. Vietnam’s defense minister visited Washington in 2003 and 2009. The U.S. Defense Secretary visited Hanoi in 2006 and 2012. Hagel’s visit may signal the end of the three yearly cycle and more frequent contact between defense ministers.

U.S. takes aim at China, ups naval aid to S.E. Asia

[U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, holds a talk with General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, Vietnam Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Luong Thai Linh, Pool) (Luong Thai Linh / AP)]

By Matthew Lee, The Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2013

HANOI, VIETNAM — Taking clear aim at China’s growing aggressiveness in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Monday that the United States will boost maritime security assistance to the countries of Southeast Asia amid rising tensions with Beijing.

On his first visit to Vietnam as America’s top diplomat, Kerry pledged an additional $32.5 million for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to protect their territorial waters and navigational freedom in the South China Sea, where four states have competing claims with China. Included in the new aid is up to $18 million for Vietnam alone that will include five fast patrol-boats for its Coast Guard. With the new contribution, U.S. maritime security assistance to the region will exceed $156 million over the next two years, he said.

Kerry said the new assistance was not a “quickly conceived reaction to any events in the region” but rather a “gradual and deliberate expansion” of U.S. support as part of the Obama administration’s broader decision to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific region. However, his comments came as Washington and Beijing trade barbs over a near collision between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea just 11 days ago.

China announced in late November that it was establishing a defense zone over the East China Sea, a maritime area between China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. All aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand, and China would take unspecified defensive measures against those that don’t comply. Neighboring countries and the U.S. have said they will not honor the new zone — believed aimed at claiming disputed territory — and have said it unnecessarily raises tensions. Already, China has claimed it has a sovereign right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.

“Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region,” Kerry told reporters at a news conference with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. “We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims.”

While stressing U.S. neutrality on the competing sovereignty claims, Kerry called on China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, to quickly agree to a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea and to resolve their disputes peacefully through negotiations.

China’s increasing assertiveness in the region — including the establishment of the East China Sea air defense zone — has alarmed many of the 10 ASEAN members , including Vietnam and the Philippines, which Kerry will visit on Tuesday.

In addition, Kerry made clear that the aid is designed to help Southeast Asian nations defend their waters from encroachment and his announcement was accompanied by blunt criticism of China for its creation of a new air defense zone and suggestions that it might do the same in the South China Sea. As such, it is almost certain to anger Beijing, which bristles at what it sees as U.S. interference in areas China considers to be in its “core interest.”

China and Vietnam fought a bloody border war in 1979, and in 1988 a naval battle close to disputed islands in the seas left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead. Disputes over fishing rights in the region have triggered occasional violent incidents and hiked up diplomatic tensions since then.

Kerry had harsh words for China’s new East China Sea air defense zone, saying it “clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident” that could lead to possible conflict between China and Japan over a string of small islands that each claim as their own.

The United States is “very concerned about recent actions that have increased tensions between China and Japan and we call for intensified negotiations and diplomatic initiatives.

“The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere, particularly in the South China Sea,” Kerry said, reiterating that such moves by Beijing would not affect U.S. military operations in the region.

Beijing regards the entire South China Sea and island groups within it as its own and interprets international law as giving it the right to police foreign naval activity there. The Chinese navy is operating with increasing frequency in the South China Sea and around Japan as part of China’s development of its blue water navy.

Tensions were highlighted earlier this month when a Chinese warship nearly collided with an American cruiser in the South China Sea. The U.S. Pacific Fleet said the USS Cowpens was operating in international waters and had to maneuver to avoid hitting China’s lone aircraft carrier, Liaoning, on Dec. 5.

However, China’s Global Times newspaper reported on Monday that the U.S. ship had first harassed the Liaoning and its group of support ships, getting too close to a Chinese naval drill and entering within 30 miles of the Chinese fleet’s “inner defense layer.”

Along with discussing the maritime security issue, Kerry, who is on his 14th visit to Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975, pressed Vietnamese officials to release political prisoners and improve its human rights record, particularly on religious and Internet freedoms. He said the United States was pleased with limited improvements, but that “Vietnam needs to show continued progress on human rights and freedoms, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of association.”

Without such reforms, he said members of Congress would likely oppose expanded engagement with Vietnam, including its participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership and the implementation of a recently concluded civilian nuclear agreement.

Kerry added that he had raised the cases of specific political prisoners and had a “very direct and healthy” exchange.

Minh, the foreign minister, allowed that there are differences between Hanoi and Washington on human rights but said they would be addressed through dialogue.

Free-market economic reforms will also be critical to overall improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese relations as well as to Hanoi reaping full benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. is negotiating with 11 Asia-Pacific nations, including Vietnam, Kerry said.


Associated Press writer Chris Brummitt contributed to this report.

Australian Defence Force to train Vietnamese troops for United Nations peacekeeping role

Brendan Nicholson, The Australian, March 20, 2013

AUSTRALIA will help train Vietnamese troops to take part in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

The decision for Diggers to share their abundant experience on such operations was announced yesterday by defence minister Stephen Smith after talks in Canberra with his Vietnamese counterpart, General Phung Quang Thanh.

"Australia will provide training to Vietnam People's Army troops preparing to deploy on United Nations peacekeeping missions in the future,'' Mr Smith said.

Vietnam is preparing to deploy peacekeepers for the first time, possibly in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The instruction to be provided by the Australian Defence Force will be carried out in both Vietnam and Australia and will focus mainly on improving the English language skills of Vietnamese officers.

Medical and engineering personnel will be coached on what to expect on these missions.

Mr Smith said the move reflected the growing closeness of the relationship between Australia and Vietnam and the high regard the ADF was held in for its peacekeeping and stabilisation skills.

He said Australia would also offer more than 80 places in ADF training establishments for Vietnamese personnel to take part in military and English language training this year and next year.

It's not widely known that the ADF has already put more than 17,000 Vietnamese Army officers through English language courses in recent years.

Yesterday the two ministers laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial and called on Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

Mr Smith said he and Mr Thanh agreed to take further practical steps to develop the defence relationship between the two nations with regular talks by officials on regional issues and opportunities for bilateral cooperation.

That is likely to include visits to each other ports by naval vessels.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Vietnam.

In Vietnam in October 2010, Mr Smith and Mr Thanh signed a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation.

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