This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Maritime security in Vietnam’s national language

In the Vietnamese language, an ninh biển (direct translation: security of the sea) is the term currently used to refer to maritime security. This term is often utilized when maritime security is related to national security. The opposite term is “an ninh đất liền” (i.e. security of land territory).1 In addition, an ninh hàng hải (i.e. security of ocean navigation, shipping, or sea lanes of communication) is also popularly used and can also be translated into English as “maritime security”.2 However, the use of an ninh hàng hải is not really related to “national security”. The security subject of an ninh hàng hải is not the Vietnamese nation-state, but the sea lanes of communication or the ships.

In sum, in the Vietnamese language, an ninh biển has a broader meaning than an ninh hàng hải.” However, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The loose usage of both terms does cause some confusion in everyday conversation as well as public writing.

Vietnam’s definition of maritime security

There is no official definition of “maritime security” (an ninh biển) by the Vietnamese authorities. No official documents by the Party, State, or Government of Vietnam3 clarify the meaning of “maritime security.”

However, in the past five to ten years, there has been growing consensus within the Vietnamese government about the appropriate usage of the term, as shown in the connotations associated with an ninh biển that were explained above. This meaning is relatively undisputed in Vietnamese security discourse. It is often invoked in elite discussions about Vietnamese national security. Current discussion of Vietnamese national security often concerns the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea (referred to in Vietnam as the East Sea), among other non-traditional security threats, because the security of Vietnam’s land territory has been virtually guaranteed since the delimitation of the common land border with China in the late 1990s.

Some public writings by senior military officers have sought to deliberate on the term an ninh biển.”4 In these writings, maritime security is explicitly linked to national security, specifically the security of the South China Sea. These writings generally acknowledge that maritime security has its traditional as well as non-traditional aspects. As the South China Sea territorial and maritime disputes are still considered sensitive in Vietnam’s public writings, the non-traditional maritime issues often receive more detailed discussion.

Vietnam’s key documents for defining and understanding maritime security

While there is no official document defining the concept of maritime security in Vietnamese security discourse, there are several official documents that shape the common understanding of maritime security.

Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper explains: “As a maritime nation, Viet Nam always pays special attention to maritime security, ensuring that Viet Nam’s seas are safe, friendly, and strictly controlled. Viet Nam always observes international law and supports the protection of free trade, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful economic activities at sea.”5

Additional legal documents also shape the understanding of maritime security in Vietnam include:

  • Statement on the Territorial Sea, the Contiguous Zone, the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf of 12 May 1977
  • Statement of 12 November 1982 by the Government of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam on the Territorial Sea Baseline of Viet Nam
  • Petroleum Law (1993)
  • Law on National Border (2003)
  • Fishery Law (2004)
  • Maritime Code of Viet Nam (2005)
  • Law of the Sea of Viet Nam (2012)
  • Law on Vietnam Coast Guard (2018)

Each of these legal documents provides a distinctive perspective on the general understanding of “maritime security” in Vietnam, which is quite multi-faceted and cross-cutting. However, none explicitly address the concept of “maritime security.”  The Maritime Code of Vietnam does provide some details regarding the conceptualization of an ninh hàng hải (security of maritime navigation)

Notably, Vietnam’s Law of the Sea and the Maritime Code coexist. Arguably, the former refers to the national security aspect of the sea while the latter refers to maritime activities, covering seagoing ships, crews, seaports, etc.

Elements of Vietnam’s approach to maritime security. Environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management, resource management (other than fisheries), counter-terrorism, law enforcement, naval operations, deterrence?

Owing to the absence of official documents on the concept of maritime security, it is disputable whether any particular element of maritime security is included in Vietnam’s conception. However, as Vietnam does acknowledge the non-traditional aspect of maritime security, it is likely that all the elements above can be included in the Vietnamese understanding of the concept. In other words, the Vietnamese conception of “maritime security” is comprehensive and inclusive. Consider the latest statement by Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at the recent United Nations Security Council debate on maritime security:

“Nevertheless, at sea, we are faced with both traditional and non-traditional security challenges. Terrorism and criminal acts, especially organized crime, have been expanding in scope and complexity. Climate change, sea level rise and pollution of the marine environment, especially by plastic debris and degradation of the marine ecosystem, have caused serious and long-term consequences. Unilateral acts that violate international law, even threats or uses of force, have escalated tensions and affected peace, friendship, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and trade, as well as efforts to address non-traditional security challenges. Therefore, preserving and enhancing maritime security is in the common interest, and has become an urgent task and shared responsibility of the entire international community.”6

Evolution in Vietnam’s usage of the term maritime security

The usage of the term an ninh biển only appears in Vietnamese security discourse in the late 2000s. Before that, only the term an ninh hàng hải was used. In the Law on National Security (2004), there is no mention of either an ninh biển nor an ninh hàng hải.”7  In Vietnam’s 2009 Defense Whitepaper, “an ninh biển” is mentioned once, under the Foreign Relations and Defense Cooperation section: “Vietnam has strived to solve the maritime boundary issues, and to expand cooperation with other countries to ensure maritime security.”8 In the 2010s, “maritime security” began to be adopted in various public writings on national security issues, especially in relation to the South China Sea. The explicit reference to “maritime security” in the 2019 Defense Whitepaper (albeit only once) may signify a new trend of more official usage of the term.

Additional context for Vietnam

The popularization of the term “an ninh biển since the late 2000s is arguably due to two influential factors impacting Vietnamese security discourse. The first one is the increasing attention being given to the South China Sea disputes (over both sovereignty and sovereign rights) in Vietnamese politics and society. This is especially noteworthy after China officialized its “U-shaped line” claim in the South China Sea in 2009.

The second factor is the socialization of Vietnam within the ASEAN security discourse, in which the concept of maritime security has been evolving. Since its accession into ASEAN, Vietnamese officials at all levels have participated in many ASEAN working groups on maritime security, and have absorbed and internalized the concept through habitual interaction with not only ASEAN fellows but also with ASEAN’s extra-regional partners via the ARF, ADMM+, ASEAN Maritime Forum, and other dialogue bodies.

[1] In Vietnamese, “an ninh” means “security”; “biển” means “the sea”. “An ninh” is different from “an toàn” [which means “safety”]. “An ninh” is often used along with “an toàn” when maritime navigation is concerned. For example, “maritime security and safety”.
[2] “Hải”, which is Chinese Vietnamese, means “maritime”. “Hàng hải” means “maritime transportation”.
[3] The translation of the country name “Việt Nam” into English is still “Vietnam”. However, from the mid-2000s, new government regulations require the country name to be written in English as “Viet Nam” in multilateral settings such as the United Nations, APEC, etc. This usage has spread into domestic settings as well. Now, both “Vietnam” and “Viet Nam” are used in some Vietnamese newspapers published in the English language, usually in an inconsistent manner.
[4] See, for example, Vu Van Khanh, Chính sách của Việt Nam về an ninh biển [Vietnam’s maritime security policy], 2014; accessible at
About Nguyen Nam Duong

Nguyen Nam Duong is the Deputy Director-General of the East Sea Institute at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam