In 1986, when Vietnam launched the Doi Moi policy, the goal was to pull the country out of severe poverty and international isolation following a series of socio-economic crises in the 1980s.
During the early reform period, policymakers largely perceived security challenges through the question of “security by what” instead of “security for whom.” In fact, the so-called “new thinkers” of this period, commonly referred to as the reformists and globalists, argued that security should be ensured mainly through economic rather than military means.
Since then, they have been locked in endless debates with anti-imperialist, conservative “old thinkers” over the shaping of Vietnam’s security policies and what kind of ‘defense’ the country must-have.
In the early 2000s, when the country’s top priority was boosting its economic development, Vietnam focused on maintaining armed forces that were “strong enough with a reasonably numerical strength and a high degree of training proficiency.”
In 2016, after the fall of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2016, the procurement of major military assets has virtually ground to a halt and the high-profile anti-corruption campaign led by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong which started in the same year has also weakened the network of military officers who engaged in rent-seeking activities, caused major setbacks in the military procurement process.
One important reason, apart from the budget, that disrupted the modernization of Vietnam’s military unit was the deep-rooted mindset of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) that considered political action more important than military action, and propaganda more important than fighting.
Presently, the security challenges presented by the dispute in the South China Sea led to Vietnam’s efforts to modernize its armed forces over the past two decades. However, with these programs facing major setbacks, the power gap between Vietnam and China, its main rival in the South China Sea, will most likely continue to widen.
However, the country’s approach to building and modernizing VPA has slowed down over the past five years despite the increasingly complex and unpredictable external security environment. But then, it continued to evolve over time.
By 2030, Vietnam aims to fully modernize its military defense. However, more still needs to be done in essential areas such as strategy making, organizational restructuring, and defense industry upgrading. And perhaps, establishing defense partnerships with neighboring countries, and its perceived allies in the West will accelerate the 2030 goal.
Sealed partnership with Japan
During the weekend, as part of his first overseas trip since assuming the post last year, Japanese Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo made a stop in Vietnam’s capital and met his Vietnamese counterpart Minister Phan Van Giang.
The visit sealed an agreement enabling exports of Japanese-made defense equipment and technology to Vietnam to boost cooperation amid ‘rising assertiveness in regional waters’.
“This Agreement was agreed in principle between the Prime Minister Suga who visited Vietnam and the former Prime Minister Phuc in October last year. The Agreement establishes a legal framework for the Governments of Japan and Vietnam regarding the transfer and handling of defense equipment and technology between the two governments in order to implement projects to be jointly determined including those contributing to international peace and stability,” reads the information stated on Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
The agreement also stipulates “procedures to determine each specific transfer as well as basic rules on the use of the transferred defense equipment and technology.”
As a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnam is the 11th country to sign such an agreement with Japan. An official from the ministry said the agreement comes as “Vietnam is diversifying its sources of defense equipment.”
The accord will "strengthen Japan's defense industrial base and is expected to contribute to the country's security," the Japanese minister said.
During the talks, Minister Nobuo expressed his country’s strong opposition to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion or any activities that escalate tensions,” without identifying any country by name.
Aside from the fact that this newly-sealed agreement advances on individual deliverables, both countries also signaled the gradual evolution of their defense ties to a more regionalized vision, a trend with implications not only for bilateral ties but the Indo-Pacific more generally.
In recent years, the defense relations between the two nations have seen their fair share of advances and apart from shared concerns in areas ranging from the cyber domain to aspects of China’s behavior, this is aligned with the broader objectives of both countries, with Vietnam strengthening ties with a range of powers as part of its omnidirectional foreign policy and Japan boosting ties with Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN as a whole as part of its own Indo-Pacific vision.
“The conclusion of this Agreement will ensure appropriate control over the defense equipment and technology transferred between Japan and Vietnam, especially regarding any subsequent transfer to a third party or any extra-purpose use,” Japan’s MOFA said.
It is expected that the said agreement will contribute to closer cooperation between Japan and Vietnam for defense equipment and technology, and maintaining and improving the production and technological bases for Japan’s defense industry.
With this sealed agreement, modernizing and improving Vietnam’s military and defense units is on the right track.
Historically, Vietnam has strong defense ties with Russia and relies on it for most of its equipment, including submarines and fighter jets, as it was part of the former Communist bloc during the Cold War.