Last November, the Coast Guard Journal was launched in Hanoi, providing a forum for officials and scholars to exchange their ideas on the future operation and administration of the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG). This journal has also become the first channel in Vietnam where academic writings from researchers both inside and outside the ranks of the VCG could be widely published and discussed. The birth of the Coast Guard Journal was a new step in an attempt to build up a “revolutionary, professional and modern” VCG.

This was also an indicator of the rising importance of the VCG in Vietnam’s overall maritime strategy. The VCG is the youngest branch of the Vietnam’s People Army (VPA), and was first set up as the Vietnam Marine Police on March 28, 1998. The VCG, which falls under the direct management of the Ministry of National Defense, plays an important role in maintaining security and stability in the vast exclusive economic zone and continental shelf boundary areas of the country.

The VCG has risen from difficult early days to a much-improved—and larger—force. Since 2010, an increasing amount of resources have strengthened the VCG to face increasing Chinese assertiveness in Vietnamese waters and Beijing’s strategy of using “white hull” or coast-guard-type vessels to enable the spread of its fishing fleets. The same year also marked the beginning of a new wave of China’s intrusion into the waters claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea, through clashes with Vietnamese law enforcement agencies or harassing Vietnamese fishermen. Additionally, non-traditional security issues like piracy and other transnational maritime crimes require the presence of a robust, effective and modern VCG in Vietnam’s coastal waters.

In 2013, the Vietnam Marine Police was officially renamed to Vietnam Coast Guard; the Bureau of Marine Police was changed to Coast Guard Command; and the Chief of the Bureau became Coast Guard Commander. Additionally, each Coast Guard region also had its own command, indicating that the regions would have autonomy in dealing with various incidents at sea.

Currently, the VCG has in its service more than 50 vessels of different classes, ranging from light vessels such as the 120-ton TT-120 class patrol vessel to the giant 2,900-ton H-222 class replenishment/transport vessel. The VCG also operates 3 CASA C-212 patrol aircraft. The backbone of VCG’s fleet is four 2000-ton DN-2000 offshore patrol vessels, which were built domestically (with technical support from Damen group, a Dutch defense and engineering conglomerate). More vessels of this class are planned for the near future. It is also worth noting that a brand new class of vessel, codenamed DN-4000 and which could weigh around 4000 tons, is slated for construction soon. This ship will be the largest coast guard vessel in Southeast Asia.

Currently, most of the VCG’s ships are constructed by domestic contractors, and this trend will definitely carry on as shipbuilding capabilities of those shipyards continue to improve. Additionally, as relations between Vietnam and other countries have strengthened in recent years, especially on security affairs, more international donors are willing to give the VCG second-hand vessels.

What particular role will the VCG play in Vietnam’s maritime strategy? The VCG was established as a means of alleviating the burden on the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) during peacetime. It can also facilitate a legal approach to enforcing the maritime sovereignty and jurisdiction rights protected under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the unprecedented effort from the Vietnamese government to modernize its coast guard and navy is better seen as a direct response to Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. It seems that Vietnam is taking a page from China’s playbook: using its “white-hull” force as a means to resist Chinese encroachment into Vietnamese waters.

Utilizing the VCG would also minimize the military and political cost of a direct confrontation with other stronger forces at sea. For example, during the 2014 drilling rig standoff between China and Vietnam off the Paracel Islands, although the VCG was overwhelmed and outnumbered by the Chinese Coast Guard, it was still able to (somewhat) hinder the operations of the platform. This opened the way for the government and the Party to negotiate directly with China. The VCG also plays an essential role in defending Vietnamese fishermen against China’s fishermen that make up the Chinese Maritime Militia force. This role has proven successful in maintaining Vietnam’s effective control over the disputed waters and dealing with unexpected incidents at sea under the pressure of China’s maritime forces.

Accordingly, the VCG now holds an important position in Vietnam’s overall maritime strategy. Vietnam could implement a three-layer defense strategy with the VCG occupying the middle tier between the VPN and maritime militia—a structure somewhat analogous to China’s own, adapted for a small coastal state like Vietnam. In a peacetime setting, the VCG serves to maintain tight control over Vietnam’s sovereign waters alongside the maritime militia. De-escalation would be the primary objective in a conflict, creating a space for negotiation between the parties or along diplomatic channels. The VPN, at the same time, would maintain its defensive and deterrent role against potential external threats. The VCG’s vessels and airplanes could also contribute to reconnaissance and other intelligence activities. In wartime, the VPN becomes the spearhead and both the VCG and the maritime militia would shift into a kind of strategic rear-guard.

This kind of Coast Guard-Navy nexus is an increasing phenomenon applied by several other regional coast guard agencies. Greater integration between the two types of maritime organizations comes in response to changing maritime challenges and requirements. Nevertheless, this tactic faces several unique problems in Vietnam due to specific disparities between the two maritime agencies.

The first obstacle is a lack of a comprehensive cooperation framework between the VCG and VPN, especially in emergencies that require immediate coordination. At the moment, both the VCG and VPN have their own command and control structures under different lines of communication.

Second, the VCG has in its service mostly smaller and less-capable vessels than its naval counterpart, which in turn reduces their effectiveness and desire to cooperate. Current operational and tactical missions of the VCG have already been overwhelming for the smaller force, and joint missions add to the burden. The VCG also suffers from a lack of clarity over the exact obligations that the different bodies have in war and peacetime. The friction resulting from competitive interactions or overlapping obligations could reduce the overall capabilities of the two and therefore result in “gray zone” conflicts involving political and legal issues.

Small navies, similar to other naval powers, obviously require a comprehensive and effective strategy to deal with numerous challenges in a constantly changing maritime environment. This strategy has to cover both operational and tactical issues as well as administration and coordination tasks with other maritime agencies in order to increase overall constabulary capabilities. These are all essential questions that need careful consideration by Vietnamese maritime strategists.

About Nguyen The Phuong

Nguyen The Phuong is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-HCMC and at the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative.

About Truong Minh Vu

Truong-Minh Vu is a director of the Center for International Studies (SCIS) and Vice Dean of the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. His research interests encompass international and strategic relations of Southeast Asia. His scholarly articles and analyses have been published on The National Interest, The Asan Forum, Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, Global Asia, East Asia Policy, ASIEN, The German Journal on Contemporary Asia, and RSIS Commentaries. He is co-editor of the book Power Politics in Asia’s Contested Waters: Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea (Springer, 2016).