By Carlyle A. Thayer*
Vietnam has sent one of its first Gepard 3.9-class guided missile frigates, Quang Trung, to Vanguard Bank to prevent Chinese oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8from operating. Is the move signalling Vietnam is ready to take the risk to use its first class guided missile frigate to counter China?
ANSWER: So far, the standoff at Vanguard Bank between China and Vietnam has been relatively restrained compared to the events of 2014. The current standoff has involved Coast Guard ships from both sides. Chinese ships have passed the bows of Vietnamese ships in a dangerous manner and used high-pressure water cannons to warn off Vietnam Coast Guard ships – but at a distance.
If the report that Vietnam has dispatched the Gepard-class frigate Quang Trung HQ 016 to Vanguard Bank is correct [see graphic below] it means Vietnam is upping the ante and signallinmg Vietnam’s resolve to defend its sovereign rights and protect its Coast Guard ships on station at Vanguard Bank. While the Quang Trungis primarily an anti-submarine frigate it is also equipped with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles and naval guns.
Q2. What will the situation be like after this move?
ANSWER: The arrival of the Gepard-class frigate should redress the naval balance of power at Vanguard Bank now in favour of the China Coast Guard which has more and heavier ships in the area. Chinese commanders at Vanguard Bank will have to think twice about ramming Vietnam Coast Guard ships and the consequences of trying to intimidate a Vietnamese military warship.
Q3. Is the move leading to a conflict between Vietnam and China in the South China Seas?
ANSWER: Vietnam has taken the first move to militarize the standoff at Vanguard Bank. China will now face the dilemma of whether or not to respond in kind by dispatching People’s Liberation Army Navy ships to Vanguard Bank. This would cast China in the role of military aggressor and provoke international criticism against China.
Chinese leaders will also have to calculate whether an escalation would push Vietnam closer to the United States and precipitate intervention by a coalition of outside powers, further internationalizing maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s leaders are currently at their summer retreat in Beidaihe grappling with how to respond to continuing civil unrest in Hong Kong and Donald Trump’s latest move to impose further tariffs on Chinese goods. Up until now Vietnam has stood up to China by issuing diplomatic protests and calling on Beijing to adhere to international law. The return of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 to Vanguard Bank clearly signals that Vietnam has concluded that China only pushes harder if Vietnam adopts a soft diplomatic stance.
Vietnam’s actions will be observed closely by regional states who have continually backed down from confronting China. These states will call for China and Vietnam to refrain from threatening or using force. China risks losing their good will if it resorts to armed force against Vietnam, which will become ASEAN Chair in four and a half months.
*Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.