Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Development of Vietnam's Sea-Denial Strategy

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Development of Vietnam's Sea-Denial Strategy

Article excerpt

In the past two decades, Vietnam's military investment has manifested a strategic shift of national interest from land to the maritime sphere, especially since 2000. This evolution reflects the country's altered external environment and its economic transformation.

During the Cold War, Hanoi focused on land warfare. Despite the existence of a small navy since the 1960s, land warfare represented the main security issue for Vietnamese decision makers, whether it concerned the Vietnam War against the United States and its allies, military intervention in Cambodia, or border defense against China.

Subsequently the normalization of relations with neighboring countries, particularly China, as well as a pivot toward a more trade-oriented economy, altered Hanoi's strategic circumstances. Whereas all of Vietnam's land borders have been accepted mutually in a series of treaties, Vietnam's water territory is still vulnerable, especially in the face of China's rising maritime power, because the maritime boundaries are unsettled. This threat affects not only Vietnam's management of its maritime resources but also the security of sea lines of communication (SLOCs), a critical factor in international trade.1 Given the large gap in naval and air military capabilities between Hanoi and Beijing, the former's projects in pursuit of military modernization reflect a clear strategic focus on sea denial.2

However, a series of questions concerning Vietnam's sea-denial capabilities present themselves, and those questions cannot be answered fully yet. Why did Hanoi adopt a sea-denial strategy? What are the characteristics of that strategy? How much does Vietnam's sea-denial strategy serve its national interests? This article examines Vietnam's geostrategic circumstances to understand better its choice of a sea-denial strategy. Hanoi's current achievements in building its sea-denial capability, as well as the characteristics and limitations of that capability, are reviewed. Finally, as the United States and its allies vis-à-vis China increase their military presence in the South China Sea, the article discusses the effects of Vietnam's sea-denial strategy and the country's relevant military capabilities on the geostrategic situation.


In Vietnam's geostrategic environment, Beijing poses the greatest threat to Hanoi's maritime interests. Other countries are unable or unlikely to pose any significant challenge.

A number of regional states, e.g., the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, claim particular territories in the South China Sea, but their limited naval capabilities do not pose a credible threat to Vietnam. Given geographic adjacency, Cambodia and Thailand might be thought to have the potential for conflict with Vietnam over maritime interests, but in fact these countries cooperate on maritime and military issues.3 With regard to capability, no country in the region possesses a navy strong enough to threaten Vietnam's. As for the great powers, only China has territorial disputes with Vietnam.

Despite several cases of bilateral cooperation, such as during the Vietnam War, Chinese geopolitical pressure on Vietnam goes back more than a thousand years. In the past, the countries' shared land borders presented natural points of access for projecting force, as evidenced in the war between them of 1979.4 Therefore, history forms an indispensable part of Vietnam's strategic culture, and resisting China's dominance remains important.5 Since the normalization of bilateral relations in 1991, Hanoi pragmatically has hedged its bets in relations with Beijing in the economic and political areas. In parallel, the countries have concluded bilateral agreements on land borders, which tends to reduce the risk of territorial disputes, a common cause of warfare.

However, the theater for bilateral territorial disputes has moved to sea areas. Since 2009, various events have confirmed some serious security concerns, such as Beijing's nine-dash line; its assertive attitude toward its territorial claims, backed by its strengthening military capability; and a series of maritime territorial conflicts employing violent means-Beijing's so-called salami strategy. …

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