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Security Concerns

Victory did not bring Vietnam the security that Hanoi leaders had assumed would be theirs in the postwar world. Vietnam in the 1980s was beleaguered, in some ways more so than North Vietnam had been during the Second Indochina War. It feared invasion, which it had not feared then, and Vietnamese society in what was formerly North Vietnam was far more restive and dispirited than it had been even during the darkest days of the war. Newly acquired South Vietnam remained largely unassimilated. Hanoi's chief instrument for assuring internal security and tranquility, the VCP, had seriously declined in effectiveness, tarnished by a decade of failure. The party's wartime reputation for being virtually omnipotent was all but gone. In addition, Hanoi's victory in the spring of 1975 had radically altered geopolitics, not only for Vietnam and Indochina, but also for all of Asia. It had precipitated drastic changes in relations among several of the nations of the Pacific, and some of these changes had severe consequences for Vietnam.

In the 1980s, Hanoi regarded itself as a major force in Asia for the first time in history. Vietnam's population of about 60 million made it the thirteenth largest of the world's 126 nations, and the third largest of the communist nations (see Population , ch. 2). It was strategically located at a crossroads of Asia and had considerable natural wealth and economic potential. It also had a large, battle-hardened, and well-equipped army. Ironically, the strengthened Vietnamese geopolitical position that resulted from victory in war became something of a postwar weakness, for it thrust on an unprepared Hanoi leadership tasks in national security planning that it was ill-prepared to handle. For decades Hanoi's security planners had been totally preoccupied with their struggle within the Indochina peninsula and had ignored the world beyond. With victory they were required for the first time to look outward and examine their nation's strategic position; to estimate potential threats and determine possible enemies and allies; to think in terms of strategic manpower, fire power, and weapons systems; and to plan strategies accordingly. Despite their great experience in warfare, they were relative novices in peace; their performance in the first postwar decade did not prove impressive.

Vietnam suffered from other remediable liabilities, in addition to inexperienced strategic planners. These included an army still oriented toward guerrilla infantry; an inability to project air and naval forces over long distances; the lack of logistics and transport systems required by a modern armed force (particularly, lack of air transport); a low level of technical competence in the officer corps; and a shortage of good, reliable equipment and weapons. Hanoi's strategic planners, and their Soviet advisers, clearly recognized that new weapons systems were required for the vastly changed security conditions facing Vietnam. Efforts were undertaken to develop the Vietnamese navy, and new Soviet-built ships arrived to be added to the fleet captured in the South. Vietnam was also rumored to be creating a submarine force. Hanoi's vaunted military strongpoint, its divisions of light infantry, however, required conversion to a more orthodox high-technology force in order to become militarily credible in the region. Hanoi's military journals indicated that ambitious research and development projects were underway, but a significant upgrading of military technology was unlikely. In the late 1980s, Vietnam was at least a decade and a half away from a nuclear weapons delivery system--unless the Soviet Union were to provide a crash development program, which was considered unlikely.

In the meantime, Vietnam remained a nation fully mobilized for war. This was a condition that eventually would require a change to a peacetime mode, accompanied by some demobilization of PAVN and the reallocation of most resources to the task of economic development, if the country were to keep pace with its Asian neighbors. The fact that PAVN continued to grow, in fact to double in size in the decade after 1975, was a government concession to entrenched PAVN interests as well as to internal and external security fears, many of them brought on by the fact that Vietnam had not renounced warfare as a foreign policy option. In any event, hard decisions lay ahead for the Hanoi leadership concerning the armed forces' share of the annual governmental budget, the ultimate size and deployment of PAVN, the kind of air and naval power to be developed, the levels of military spending, and the development of indigenous sources of military hardware.

Vietnam in 1987 faced only one truly credible external threat--China (see The Chinese Millennium; Nine Centuries of Independence , ch. 1). The complex Sino-Vietnamese relationship, dating back two thousand years, is deeply rooted in the Confucian concept of pupil-teacher. Thus, any issues under contention or problems that exist between the two on the surface normally are transcended by this basic relationship. Much of the behavior demonstrated by the two since 1975--including Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and China's subsequent "lesson" to Vietnam--is, in fact, traceable to the workings of this deep-rooted historic association (see Foreign Relations , ch. 4). Victory in the Indochina War left Hanoi leaders determined to change the centuries-old relationship. The Vietnamese sought to end the notion of the rimland barbarian's obligation to pay deference to the Middle Kingdom. They felt the tutelary relationship should give way to one of greater equality. The Chinese, however, considered that nothing significant had changed and that the original condition of mutual obligation should continue. For the Chinese, the touchstone would always be the Sino-Soviet dispute and the need to reduce Soviet influence in Hanoi. Most important for China was the nature and future of the Soviet presence in Indochina. Beijing tried several approaches to induce Hanoi to maintain its distance from Moscow. However, none was successful. In the 1980s it pursued what might be called a campaign of protracted intimidation--military, diplomatic, and psychological pressure--on the Vietnamese, calculating that eventually Hanoi would seek some accommodation.

In the minds of Hanoi's strategic planners, Vietnam's two Indochina neighbors posed nearly as large an external security threat as did China. Strategically, Cambodia and Laos represented weak flanks where internal anticommunist forces could challenge the local regimes and threaten Vietnam itself. Geography increased this threat. Vietnam is an extraordinarily narrow country--at its "waist" near Dong Hoi it is only forty kilometers across--and could be cut in half militarily with relative ease either through an amphibious landing on its coast or through an invasion from Laos. It is also a long country, with some 8,000 kilometers of border and coastline to defend. For these reasons Hanoi was prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve a secure, cooperative, nonthreatening Laos and Cambodia.

External security threats to Vietnam from the Southeast Asia region were also possible. Just as the relationship with China was tied to Hanoi's Cambodian and Laotian policies, so the relationship with Cambodia and Laos was bound up with policies toward the six nations comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnamese security goals in Southeast Asia in the 1980s appeared to be the elimination of any United States military presence; the diminution of American influence; a general balance of superpower activity in the region; and, possibly, the unified economic development of the region. PAVN dwarfed all of its ASEAN neighbors' armed forces and, in fact, was larger than all six combined. Its size and continued growth provided Hanoi's neighbors with legitimate cause for worry. PAVN, given the advantage of terrain, was sufficiently powerful to battle the Chinese army to a stalemate for a prolonged period, although not indefinitely. The composition of PAVN--large numbers of infantry with only guerrilla war experience, limited air power, and virtually no offensive naval capability--meant that Vietnam could not, however, project force over a long distance and could not, for instance, offer a credible threat even to Indonesia. Probably it could not even defend its holdings in the Spratly Islands against a determined Chinese assault (see fig. 1).

In strict strategic terms, PAVN was not as threatening to most of Vietnam's neighbors as its size suggested. Thailand, however, was a clear exception. PAVN had the military capability to crush Thailand's small, lightly equipped armed force in frontal battle. It could invade and occupy Thailand quickly, although most certainly that action would trigger the same kind of resistance encountered in Cambodia. Furthermore, such an invasion would incur the wrath of China, the displeasure of the Soviet Union, and would probably precipitate military support from the ASEAN states and the United States. In the long run, PAVN will be a credible threat to its remaining neighbors only when it develops adequate air and naval strength. Vietnam's acquisition of such a capability, however, will depend more on Moscow's inclinations than Hanoi's.

Data as of December 1987

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