For years now, China has pursued maritime dominance in the South China Sea. This drive has pushed its neighbors with competing territorial claims to take actions of their own and, as Stratfor's 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast noted, to rely on larger powers for support through security partnerships. With its coast guard receiving assistance from foreign friends such as the United States, Vietnam is considering a new law to empower its fleet to more aggressively defend Hanoi's territorial claims.
As China continues to steadily ramp up its quasi-military forces, countries around the South China Sea are responding by strengthening their own maritime enforcement capabilities in the competition for sea lanes, natural resources and disputed territory. On April 11, Vietnam's National Assembly released a draft bill outlining potential changes to the authority, functions and structure of the country's coast guard. Significantly, the proposal would empower the coast guard with greater flexibility on when to open fire at sea, raising the risk of skirmishes in waters where the undefined boundaries already lead to fishing conflicts and other disputes.
The draft bill, which legislators are expected to vote on by the end of the year, builds on a 1998 ordinance that established the Vietnam Marine Police — then a branch of the Vietnam People's Army. In 2008, the branch was renamed the Vietnam Coast Guard. In 2013, it was made independent of the Vietnam People's Navy, so it wouldn't be an outright military force, facilitating international cooperation with countries such as the United States. The organization's command structure also gained greater authority and regional autonomy in response to the increased security threats — including sovereignty disputes, fishing incidents and transnational maritime crimes — in Vietnam's coastal waters.
Like China's, Vietnam's coast guard plays an important role in safeguarding the country's maritime interests. This is partially because, although it is one of the most militarily capable countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea, the country's naval combat capabilities are far inferior to China's. As Vietnam pushes toward its goal of upgrading its defense capabilities, its efforts to acquire new vessels for its coast guard have benefited from strengthened defense ties with Japan and the United States. Though the majority of its vessels are produced domestically, they are built through technological cooperation with the Netherlands, South Korea and the United States.
China's so-called "white hull" strategy to establish a presence and project force in the South China Sea has provided a significant impetus for Vietnam's push toward greater coast guard capabilities. Through its well-armed coast guard fleet, which is the world's largest, China has been able to harass other nations into submitting to its maritime claims. And by deploying a civilian maritime agency rather than its navy, China is able to ensure a proportional response from the smaller coast guards of neighboring countries and to prevent stronger naval powers such as the United States from using military vessels to interfere in Asian maritime disputes. Over the years, Beijing's continued efforts to upgrade its coastal forces — as well as the advancements in its naval power and its push for dominance in nearby waters — have compelled countries such as Vietnam and Japan to accelerate buildups of their own and to collaborate on countering the numerous Chinese maritime forces.
China, for its part, has recently restructured its coast guard to move it from the civilian State Oceanic Administration to the People's Armed Police. This effectively puts its coast guard under the direct command of the Central Military Commission. The move will certainly give the organization's personnel more advanced training, but it could also threaten diplomacy as other countries ramp up efforts of their own.
Mindful of China and the regional race to assert territorial claims through coast guards, Vietnam could use the new law to further its overall objective of strengthening its capabilities for maritime surveillance and enforcement. Vietnam also aims to create a unified legal framework that can overcome its coast guard's previous inadequacies and its overlapping responsibilities with other agencies, such as Vietnam's border guard.