If Vietnam and China Went to War: Five Weapons Beijing Should Fear. Who can face up to China?

If Vietnam and China Went to War: Five Weapons Beijing Should Fear. Who can face up to China?

They went to war in 1979 and it did not turn out well for China. Today, Vietnam has the military muscle to present lots of problems.

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works from our “Weapons of War” series including: Five NATO Weapons of War Russia Should Fear, Five Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear, Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear, Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear, Fiv Japanese Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Best Weapons of War from the Soviet Union and Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear.

In 1975, the armed forces of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam defeated the Republic of Vietnam, capturing Saigon and putting to end nearly thirty years of civil war.  The victory came three years after the United States, unwilling to pay the price of continued engagement, left the war. In 1979, the People’s Republic of China invaded Vietnam in an effort to punish Hanoi for its actions in Cambodia, and for its association with the Soviet Union.  The war lasted a month, with Chinese forces leaving after heavy losses and without achieving any strategic objectives.

In short, the Vietnam People’s Army has a history of success. Today, Sino-Vietnamese relations are again hitting a low point. The deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam has only exacerbated tensions over control of islands in the South China Sea. Various Vietnamese politicians, including the late Vo Nguyen Giap, have warned about the threat of Chinese encroachment.

If war broke out, what weapons could Vietnam use? It turns out that China and Vietnam shop in the same place; most of the weapons that Vietnam would use against China are also in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army.  However, the implications of offensive and defensive employment vary greatly.  Here are five systems that Vietnam might use to good effect against the Chinese military.


Airpower played a curiously small role in the 1979 war.  The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) did not, because of problems with doctrine and technology, have the capacity to extend itself over the battlefront.  The much smaller Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) remained quiet, preferring to play the defensive role that it had perfected against the United States a decade earlier, but didn’t need in this conflict.

That won’t be the case the next time around. Both the VPAF and the PLAAF have upgraded with formidable Russian, and in the latter case domestic, aircraft.  Most notable among these are members of the Su-27 Flanker family.  Vietnam operates around 40 Flankers of various types, with another 20 on order from Russia.  In addition to defense air-to-air missions, these aircraft can strike Chinese land and sea targets with long-range, precision cruise missiles. The Flankers are heavy, fast, and deadly, and would see action on both sides.

In conjunction with Vietnam’s integrated air defense network, the Flankers (as well as a few older fighters, such as MiG-21s), can threaten not only to deny Vietnamese airspace to China, but also to punch back.  We don’t yet have a sense of how Vietnamese pilot training compares with Chinese, although the PLAAF obviously has greater resources, and has devoted attention in recent years to realistic training.  Nevertheless, the VPAF may be able to use its sophisticated Flankers to good defensive advantage against overstretched Chinese forces.

Kilo Class Submarine

Analysts generally agree that the PLAN has yet to work out the most important problems with anti-submarine warfare.  While the PLAN will undoubtedly have a huge advantage in submarines in the opening days of any conflict, its undersea fleet is optimized for attacks against surface ships, not fighting enemy subs.

The quiet, modern Kilo class subs that Vietnam has recently begun acquiring from Russia will present a major problem for the PLAN.  Although the Chinese also operate Kilos (as well as a variety of other subs), these would not necessarily neutralize the Vietnamese boats before they could exact a toll.  The Vietnamese Kilos carry both torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles that could pose a big threat to Chinese warships and to Chinese offshore installations.

As tensions rise over the disputed South China Sea, Vietnam’s military has moved beyond contingency planning. They have swiftly extended the runway on the Spratly Islands to military-sized length, meaning it can now accommodate maritime surveillance and combat aircraft.

At the same time, Vietnam’s generals have strategically positioned rocket launchers capable of striking China’s military fortresses across the disputed maritime area. These forces are constantly on high alert and combat-ready mode to fend off China’s claims in the area.

Both countries share a history marked with armed conflict and continued hostility. They fought a border war in 1979 which killed around 50,000 people. Meanwhile, competing claims for ownership over the Paracel and Spratly Islands have also led to several bloody standoffs between the two communist nations.

The view from the east

These recent military modernisations are perceived by China as an imminent threat and Beijing has condemned it as an expression of defiance towards its claims of sovereignty over the island. The Vietnamese government dismisses this claim, saying its actions are simply a standard protocol for all nations.

China’s defence ministry states that “both sides should look for a basic, lasting solution both sides can accept” in this matter. However, Vietnam disagrees with mediation and has instead focused its efforts on how to defend itself at all costs. With this take it or leave it mentality, Vietnam is undoubtedly provoking a war against China and making Beijing look bad in front of the international community.

However, China is hardly a victim of Vietnam in this situation as the sheer scale of effort it has put into asserting its dominance over the sea through land expansions, the creation of new islands and military movements shows. Furthermore, China has defended its position against recent rulings in international arbitration saying they were “ill-founded” and remained “firmly opposed to it”. It is this unrestrained attitude that convinces Vietnam an unrepentant China may never approve a deal even if they did enter a dialogue on the dispute.

Problems with the neighbours

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s efforts will have little impact without the backing of other countries. And so far its efforts to placate China’s territorial claims have been largely futile, after all, neighbouring countries like Malaysia and the Philippines have decided to pivot towards China.

Previously tensions had mounted between China and Philippines when each was claiming rights to South China Sea waters. And as pressure reached boiling point, China launched a bitter rejection of the arbitration tribunal’s ruling. Philippine President Duterte hit back saying he would personally drive a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands and plant the Philippine flag. Now, Duterte has labelled China-Phillippines’ relations a new “springtime” as both are set to cooperate to bring their relations to new heights with a peaceful resolution to this dispute.

On Malaysia’s side, Najib has agreed “to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue on a bilateral channel and through dialogue” and engage in joint military cooperation. These discussions are set to usher in new beginnings for the countries and a probable end to Vietnam’s efforts to claim local waters for itself.

ASEAN’s challenges

This new alliance has caused tension within members of the ASEAN community, as nations have repeatedly failed to unify against the Chinese regime. Referring to a resolution on the dispute, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Shanmugam said that “a compromise could not be reached because of the distance between positions taken by ASEAN members”.

He further added that the, “fact that (ASEAN) has 600 million people, an economy of 1.8 trillion, the resources in the region and resources in the South China Sea, obviously mean that ASEAN is an area of interest to powers outside of the immediate region” and that “ASEAN needs to try and keep itself whole” to prevent imminent disbandment of this powerhouse.

This dispute has also escalated tensions between China and Singapore. In a first strike, Chinese communist party’s mouthpiece, The Global Times, firmly accused Singapore of acting out of self-interest and playing against China. In response to the accusation, Singapore’s ambassador to Beijing, Stanley Loh, wrote a letter to the Global Times’ editors” saying the report was “replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts”.

Global Times editors did defend the accuracy of their reports, but with little force. It is clear that this article was intended to make the Chinese believe that Singapore has chosen sides. And with Singapore’s policies geared towards the West, this idea is all the more believable to Chinese readers.

Choosing sides?

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee has previously asserted that “Other countries will persuade us to side with them, one side or the other, and we have to choose our own place to stand.” And although he is clear that Singapore has not taken sides, it does have key interests to protect where issues about maritime territorial control are concerned. The most recent political drama which China has embroiled Singapore in, and the political affiliations it has gained, mean there’s an urgent need for a more proactive stance on Singapore’s part.

Meanwhile, China says it does not care much about the veracity of the facts around ensuring countries act in a politically correct way. Dr Feng Zhang, a professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China, says, “It is now time to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power and accommodate its interests or otherwise face [the] consequences.” As such, Singapore faces a tough decision in maintaining peace in the West and with ASEAN but still complying with China.

With this in mind, Vietnam must consider the possibility that Singapore will comply with China in the South China Sea dispute. And if that is the case, then Vietnam must urgently reconsider its position. It faces a losing battle against China where its allies surround Vietnam in both a geographical and political sense. Although Vietnam is caught between a rock and a hard place, the country must come to its senses and try to seek a peaceful alternative.

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