Vietnam's Security Perspectives

Udai Bhanu Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA


This article seeks to indicate Vietnam's response to an evolving security environment. The concept of security is a weakly developed one. National security has traditionally been viewed from either of two perspectives. The Power (Realist) approach and the Peace (Idealist) approach. The former view, whose votaries include Morgenthau and others, is a derivative of the power at the command of a state. The latter view assumes security to be a derivative of durable peace. These are two extreme views but the concept of security takes the middle path and combines the virtues of the Power and Peace approaches to national security.

Domestic Security

The domestic factors—social, economic and political—have a bearing on a country's security policy, even though the followers of the neo-realist school may not agree. Vietnam's security policy has to operate under the constraints of economic difficulties. It fully recognises the linkage between economy and national defence, and outlines the need to build strength politically, spiritually, economically, scientifically, militarily and technologically.

History has bequeathed many economic problems to Vietnam. Vietnam has, thus, lagged behind other countries of the world and even within the South-East Asian region. The Vietnamese are a fiercely nationalistic people, who became victims of the historical process. The Economist, quite significantly, called them South-East Asia's Prussians. It is noteworthy that the people of Vietnam, who in recent history fought and won some notable wars against the established military might of the French, the Americans and the Chinese, are now fighting a new kind of war. This time, the war is against economic stagnation and under- development caused by years of colonial exploitation and falling victim to Cold War politics. Vietnam is following a pragmatic approach. It is today willing to do business with its former enemy, knowing fully well that the welfare of its people depends on it. The Vietnamese will be remembered not only for having bravely fought wars against some of the world's biggest powers, but for the manner in which they refused to show any bitterness after the wars.

As economic crisis led to popular discontent, the government was prompted to give in to change. It was at the Communist Party's Sixth Party Congress in December 1986 that the plan for deregulation or dot moi (renovation) was enunciated.1 With the collapse of the Soviet Union, an important ally on whom it had depended so heavily in the past, disappeared suddenly. The friendship with the Soviet Union had been at the cost of China and the United States. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) on which Vietnam had relied substantially for aid to build its economy, collapsed in 1991. It was forced to look to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for aid. 2 The World Bank has, for instance recently provided a loan totalling an additional $182 million.3 This has meant a shift from a centrally planned economy to a market oriented one, in which the Vietnamese can cooperate with outsiders. First, it got a boost after Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia.4 Second, in February 1994, the US lifted its 19-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam and President Clinton announced the opening of a liaison office in Hanoi. 5 With these developments, the process of building bridges of friendship became possible. It resulted in Vietnam's admission to the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) and later to the Association of South-East Nations (ASEAN), and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). After it expressed its desire to join the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) other ASEAN members agreed to give Vietnam a grace period till 2003 to lower tariffs. It is a measure of Vietnamese statesmanship that in a rapidly changing global environment, they have undertaken the daunting task of structuring a hybrid "socialist market economy" while preserving the dominance of the Communist Party.

Vietnam is confronted with several economic problems:

l Decline in growth

l Impact of South-East Asian economic crisis

l Impact of natural calamities

The government reviewed developments for the past six months in a regular meeting (chaired by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai) on July 5-6, 1999. Though there were some achievements (such as record food production of nearly 15.4 million tonnes for the winter-spring crop, and a growth in exports by 7.7 per cent during the first six months), there were also drawbacks. There was a decline in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rate (4.3 per cent, which is lower than the annual target of 5-6 per cent set by the National Assembly) and industrial production. 6

Table 1. GDP: Growth Rate (per cent)

1980-89 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998e 1999e


5.0 5.1 6.0 8.6 8.1 8.8 9.5 9.3 9.0 5.0 6.5

Sources : Daljit Singh and Tin Maung Maung Than, Regional Outlook; Southeast Asia 1999-2000 (Singapore: ISEAS, 1999); World Economic Outlook 1998 (IMF)

Earlier, the sixth plenum of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Communist Party met from October 13-17, 1998, when it formulated the economic strategy for 1999. It was realistic enough to acknowledge the problems. It candidly admitted that economic growth had slowed down, and production and trade had declined. Unemployment, both urban and rural, had been increasing, though the employment rate in 1997 was 3.5 per cent of the labour force. In rural areas, there is under-employment and in urban centres, unemployment is as high as 7 per cent. Poverty still stands at 17.4 per cent. In an introspective tone, it admitted that the inner strength—the potential resources (including the overseas Vietnamese community)—had not yet been tapped. The race for efficiency resulted in many workers in state enterprises being laid off, while the withdrawal from Cambodia resulted in demobilisation of half a million solders. Different sources give different figures relating to inflation and minor variations relating to GDP. 7

Table 2. Vietnam: Inflation Rate (per cent)

1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998e 1999e

36.0 81.8 37.7 8.3 9.5 16.9 5.7 3.1 4.0 4.0

Sources: Daljit Singh and Tin Maung Maung Than, Regional Outlook: Southeast Asia 1999-2000 (Singapore: ISEAS, 1999); World Economic Outlook 1998 (IMF).

Vietnam still has to tap its many sources of domestic capital accumulation. The sixth plenum stressed on mobilisation of domestic savings and funds from the overseas Vietnamese community. Some enterprises in urban areas are beginning to benefit from the foreign capital that is coming in. The burden of economic responsibility has gradually shifted to the non-state sector which now accounts for the bulk of the GDP and of the total employment. But it requires a helping hand in the nascent stage of its development. Access to credit has to be simplified. Vietnam's economic woes are compounded by social problems, including red tape, excessive bureaucratisation and corruption which the Defence White Paper acknowledges as factors contributing to internal destabilisation. Vietnam has to streamline the financial and banking system, and reduce red tape and corruption.

The infrastructure that is so necessary for making any economic headway has to be further developed. Paved roads, bridges which are regularly repaired and maintained, ports with adequate facilities, and a regular source of electric supply are some of the essentials. Vietnam has sought and also obtained funding for this. Several projects (with funding from Japan's Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund) are underway to upgrade many of Vietnam's highways. It will improve traffic flow between Hanoi, Haiphong city and Quang Ninh province in the economic triangle in northern Vietnam.8 Perhaps what the Vietnamese are lacking in terms of physical infrastructure, they make up for, in the high degree of motivation among their technocrats. This may have something to do with the fact that Vietnam has among the highest literacy rates in the world. According to official figures, the literacy rate among people aged 15-35 years was 93 per cent. Despite financial constraints, the government has sought to increase the education budget (VND 14,180 billion for the year 2000) as it considers education a prime national goal.9

Table 3. Vietnam: Education and Training (1998-1999 academic year)

No. Level of education Number of schools Pupils/Students Teachers

1. Kindergarten 1,121 404,089 50,568

2. Pre-school 4,124 2,179,348 94,012

3. Primary school 13,076 10,250,214 336,792

4. Junior secondary school 7,066 5,564,888 194,237

5. Senior secondary school 689 1,657,708 54,324

6. College 75 157,710 6,806

7. Vocational and technical training school 247 178,244 9,732

8. University 64 641,174 21,229

Source: The Educational Management Information Centre, Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training, August 1999, cited in Vietnam Review, no. 489, September 1999; Vietnam: Education (in 1993/94 and 1995/96).

Nevertheless, Vietnam exudes a certain confidence in the path of renovation that it has adopted, which has resulted in its integration with the regional and world economies. The government is also trying to solve the problems by increasing investment and exports, strengthening the financial and monetary system, increasing production and encouraging consumption demand, and generally improving the business environment.

Table 4. Vietnam: Foreign Direct Investment from ASEAN Countries (US$)

Country FDI

Singapore 6.5 billion

Malaysia 1.342 billion

Thailand 1.106 billion

Indonesia 281.9 million

Philippines 258.6 million

Source: Based on figures in SWB/FEW/0597, WB/8, July 14, 1999.

Vietnam is also seeking new markets in Europe and America. But a most-favoured-nation treaty with the United States seems unlikely in 1999 and this will delay its membership bid in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The overall impact is seen from the fact that the government was forced to reduce military spending and cut down the defence budget because of economic constraints.

Political Culture

Each country develops its own political culture. This refers to the orientation and assumptions that are characteristic of it. Further narrowed down, each political culture has its own security and strategic culture. This includes its approach to international relations, its behaviour towards other states and non-state actors—identifying its national interests and the means to achieve those goals. Thus, the governing political elite makes a conscious decision to opt for one course of action and not another, one policy instrument and not another. This is what makes its security policy unique.

Vietnam's significant belief system was forged by its own historical experience (anti-militarism, emphasis on multilateral institutions).

Vietnam is openly indignant at attempts by interested powers to use issues like human rights or democracy to interfere in its internal affairs. It is equally conscious of a more subtle intrusion by means of culture and ideology and through the support of destabilising forces, which it views as a threat to its social and political system.10

External Security

In mid-1998, Vietnam released its first Defence White Paper, according to which, the three major threats faced by the country are economic decline, political subversion and territorial disputes (especially in the South China Sea).

Vietnam has established diplomatic relations with 165 states.


Vietnam acceded to the 1976 ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in July 1992. It became a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 1994. When Vietnam joined ASEAN on July 28, 1995, as its seventh member, there was a total turnaround in regional relations.

In a major report on foreign policy delivered to the National Assembly in October 1998, Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam noted the new trend of seeking to upturn the ASEAN principle of non-interference and replacing it with the principle of constructive engagement. Vietnam had opposed the Thai initiative of interference in the internal affairs of member countries.

Vietnam maintains military contact with Laos at the highest level. The Laotian Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Douangchai Phichit led a high ranking military delegation on a working visit to Vietnam in July 1999.11

Vietnam has also sought to normalise relations with Cambodia.12 When the Cambodian Senate Chairman Samdech Chea Sim paid a visit to Hanoi in July 1999, the Vietnamese president expressed the hope that an agreement on a common border line would be signed soon. During the visit of Vietnamese Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu to Cambodia in June 1999, the two countries had issued a joint declaration. Vietnam withdraw its remaining 26,000 troops from Cambodia by September 1989. With Malaysia, Vietnam has started joint exploration of petroleum in areas of overlapping claims, and with Thailand, it has signed a border demarcation agreement.

Changing Attitudes Towards Vietnam

What are the expectations other powers have from Vietnam? According to the realist view, a state security policy is determined by opportunities/constraints imposed by its geo-political situation and its relative power in the international system. The changes that have occurred in Vietnam's security policy in the post-Cold War era can be understood from a neo-realist perspective. The end of the Cold War, and the collapse of a reliable ally in the Soviet Union brought about major changes not only in Vietnam's own policy (witness its withdrawal of troops from Cambodia) but also in the attitudes of countries towards Vietnam (resulting in its acceptance by ASEAN as the first Communist member).

The post-Cold War era has created new opportunities and challenges for Vietnam. New opportunities have opened up as Vietnam is being incorporated in the larger Asia-Pacific community, on the threshold of the new millenium. The new opportunities also include the new way in which the rest of ASEAN is looking at Vietnam—much is expected from Vietnam's role vis-à-vis China. It shares a border with China, and has actually been to war with that country more than once. It also contests the Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

The new challenges relate to the dilemmas facing the Vietnamese leadership in balancing the country's security interests with its ideological moorings. New circumstances have generated new possibilities and Vietnam has adopted a reasonably flexible approach. This became visible in its economic policy of doi moi.


Vietnam and China reached a new level in confidence building when they cleared all the landmines along their border. This is said to be the largest such campaign in the world. With this, the border trade along the Yunnan province and Guangxi increased by Yuan 4 billion.13

Vietnam's relations with China began to improve after Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accord in October 1991 and the People's Republic of China decided to suspend military aid to the Khmer Rouge.14 This was aided by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. But China continues to be a source of concern for Vietnam. Hanoi has noted its high rate of economic growth since 1978, with its GDP touching US $830 billion.15 Differences on the question of sovereignty over the South China Sea islands persist. China passed a controversial territorial waters law in 1992 by which it claimed virtually the entire South China Sea. However, Vietnam has maintained that "at present, Vietnam is facing problems of territorial sovereignty, the boundaries of its EEZ and continental shelf which should be settled with the neighbouring countries. The maritime space and islands of Vietnam in the East Sea, including the Paracels and the Spratlys, are an integral part of the nation. They lie within the nation's territorial boundaries, founded for a millenium now; the EEZ and continental shelf claims of Vietnam are recognised by international conventions, in particular by the 1982 UNCLOS."16

Hanoi perhaps has apprehended the Chinese desire to emerge as a major regional power. It has understood that China's desire to improve relations with neighbours is dictated by its need for a peaceful environment as it increases its real strength. This explains the decision of the Chinese Communist Party Congress by which it seeks to settle disputes with neighbouring countries through peaceful negotiations, and failing that, to just set them aside. China is improving relations with Russia, Japan and India. A realistic appraisal of the great disparity in physical dimension has led Vietnam to a greater acceptance of the need to normalise relations with its larger neighbour, China. From Hanoi's perspective, "…Vietnam is ready to negotiate peacefully for the settlement of the historical issues as well as the newly arising ones."17


Vietnam views Russia as a "guarantor of peace and stability" in the regional and international context. Its Defence Minister Pham Van Tra said this while on an official visit to Russia in July 1999.18 He and his Russian counterpart also signed a military and technical cooperation agreement on June 2, 1999, which would enable Vietnamese military specialists to be trained by Russia (already over 13,000 such specialists have been trained).19

Defence White Paper

Vietnam's approach to security is clearly reflected in its first Defence White Paper. It reveals a more open approach as Hanoi has chosen to publicly discuss at length a subject which it had traditionally been hesitant to do. It has thereby helped in putting several suspicions at rest and contributed its bit to regional stability. The Defence White Paper is divided into three parts:

Part I: Firmly Defending our Socialist Homeland of Vietnam for Peace, Independence and Development.

Part II: Building a Strong All-People's National Defence.

Part III: Building a Strong People's Armed Forces.

Part I is a survey of security trends at the global, regional and national levels. The general tenor of the Defense White Paper can be gleaned from these words:

The world situation is evolving in favour of consolidating peace. The threat of a large-scale annihilating war is being pushed back…Nowadays, countries of great, medium and small sizes, all give priority to economic development and consider it the base of building their national aggregate strength…The needs for economic development are linked to those for broadening political relations, and at the same time, linked to new requirements for security. Political security and economic development are the simultaneous factors that strongly affect each country's defence.

Part II delineates Vientam's military doctrine which revolves around the main tenet of "all-people's national defence of Vietnam" in which all the people, not the armed forces alone, are participants in the great task of defending and protecting the country. For a people who suffered long spells of colonial rule, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. To that end, they want to channelise all the productive forces of the country—political, spiritual, economic or technological. Part III covers the various categories of forces. This includes sections on the regular forces (army, navy and air force), the local force, and militia and self-defence force. But it fails to mention the force strength (estimated by one source at 490,000 men at an expense of over $900 million).20 Another section details the seven "key measures" taken:

l To build up the People's Armed Forces politically.

l To build and train a contingent of officers and technical personnel.

l To maintain improve, rationally procure and resupply weapons and equipment.

l To continue building and developing the military science of Vientam.

l To gradually modernise the command system of the People's Army of Vietnam.

l To build all-sidedly strong and firm grass-root units.

l To expand international cooperation.

The White Paper seems to echo the Indonesian concept of National Resilience when it points out that the activities and operations of the People's Armed Forces of Vietnam, "…have been contributing to maintaining the national security of Vietnam, and at the same time, hopefully contributing to security of the region…" Hence, it views this approach of meshing national resilience with regional resilience as one which shows the responsible attitude of the People's Armed Forces of Vietnam.

Military Doctrine

Vietnam adopts a holistic approach to security. History has played a pivotal role in shaping Hanoi's approach—having experienced centuries of colonial subjugation, it is very careful regarding the matters of its sovereignty. It emphasises economic restructuring and renovation while at the same time being loyal to Marxist-Leninist and Ho Chi Min's teachings and ideas.

In the main, the Vietnamese military doctrine still revolves around the concept of "all people's national defence" or "people's warfare". Despite the advances in technology, Vietnam has defined that the only way for it is people's warfare in order to organise the people on a nationwide scale. "The all-people's national defence of Vietnam is one in which all the people, not the armed forces alone, take part in building a national defence and protecting the country."21 National defence is understood to include not only military components but is comprehensive in nature. The territorial army is still important: it is most mobile and not entirely dependent on changes in technology. The territorial forces are the most mobile forces.

Ho Chi Minh had emphasised on the need for a small coutnry fighting a big power to secure international solidarity. Only then could the forces of imperialism be overcome. So a smaller, poorer, weaker country should know how to create strength and how to use this strength against superior forces. Vietnam's success against the Americans had been as much due to the failure of American heliborne warfare as to the success of the Vietnamese ground forces which were constantly on the move.

Other Security Issues

Some of the other security issues which concern Vietnam are:22

l Illegal immigration and emigration.

l Unlawful fishing.

l Light weapons proliferation and spread of drugs.


Vietnam has been an enigma to some people, especially to those powerful states whose armies it was able to vanquish in the past. However, at the back of its security policy is the story of a pragmatic people seeking to make the most of their opportunities and situation without seemingly losing sight of their basic objective. If the Vietnamese seem to be adjusting their principles to suit the new environment they find themselves in, in no way does it diminish their image as a basically brave people. The current historical phase which South-East Asia, and in it, the Indochina region, is passing through is the result of a series of historical developments in which more than one player was responsible for what transpired. If the Vietnamese security policy is able to preserve its basic national interest and sovereignty and also contribute to regional peace and stability, its leadership could be said to have fulfilled its role in a period of history which may be deceptively tranquil.



1. Certain individuals such as General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Van Linh, played a leading role in initiating these developments. He was nicknamed Gorbachev of South-East Asia. See Zain Amri, "Post Cambodia Vietnam: Some Economic Considerations," Asian Defence Journal, no. 5, 1994, pp. 45-49.

2. For more details, Ritu Sharma, "Liberalisation in Vitnam: A New Strategy for a State in Transition," China Report, vol. 35, no. 1, January-March 1999.

3. SWB/FEW/0601, WB/5, August 11, 1999.

4. For details, see Dorothy R. Avery, "Vietnam in 1992: Win Some, Lose Some," Asian Survey, vol. 33, no. 1, January 1993, pp. 71-72, and Douglas Pike, "Vietnam in 1993: Uncertainty Closes in," Asian Survey, vol. 34, no. 1, January 1994, pp. 65-66.

5. George Esper, "Clinton Lifts 19-year Trade Embargo on Vietnam," Pioneer, February 5, 1994. Also refer, Michael Elliot, "Exorcising the Ghosts", Newsweek, February 14, 1994, pp. 14-15; and Thomas W. Lippman, "Senate Votes to Free Vietnam Trade," Guardian Weekly, February 6, 1994, p. 17.

6. SWB/FEW/0597, WB/3, July 14, 1999, Earlier estimates had put the GDP growth rate at a much higher figure as shown in Table 1.

7. According to government sources, inflation was cut back from 67.1 per cent in 1991 to 12.7 per cent in 1995, 10 per cent in 1996 and less than 2 per cent in 1997. Similarly, average annual growth of GDP is said to have reached 8.2 per cent in the period 1991-95, and 9 per cent in 1996-97.

8. SWB/FEW/0601, WB/5, August 11, 1999.

9. Bich Ha, "Vietnamese Education: Challenges & Achievements," Vietnam Review, no. 489, September 1999, p. 8.

10. Vietnam: Consolidating National Defence Safeguarding the Homeland, (SRV: Ministry of Defence, 1998) p. 14.

11. SWB/FE/3588, B/6, July 16, 1999.

12. For detailed details, Udai Bhanu Singh, "Vietnam's Economy and Foreign Relations in Post-Cold War Era", Strategic Analysis, vol. XVII, no. 7, October 1994, pp. 867-880.

13. SWB/FE/3612, G/3, August 13, 1999.

14. For details, Udai Bhanu Singh, "Recent Trends in Sino-Vietnamese Relations", Strategic Analysis, vol. XIX, no. 2, May 1996, pp. 303-315.

15. The Vietnam Defence White Paper puts the GDP of Japan at that time at US$4,800 billion and that of ASEAN at US$600 billion.

16. See n. 8.

17. Ibid.

18. SWB/FE/3579, B/3, July 6, 1999.

19. SWB/FE/3578, B/5, July 5, 1999.

20. Jane's Defence Journal, July 29, 1998.

21. Ibid.

22. n. 10, p. 14.