The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
VIETNAM – MILITARY
On this page:
- Military Capability
- Defence White Paper
- Strategic Partners
Vietnam is known as having one of the more capable militaries in South-East Asia. The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), also known as the Vietnamese People's Army (VPA), is the main military force of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It is one component of the Vietnam People's Armed Forces (VPAF) which also consists of the Vietnam People's Public Security, the main police and security force, and the Vietnam Self-Defence Militia. The military flag of the PAVN is the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with the words Quyết thắng which translates to ‘Determination to win’ added in yellow at the top left. Conscription is still actively enforced in Vietnam for young men from 18 to 27 years of age, young women are eligible for mandatory service but not drafted. For more information on Vietnam's modern military strength see the Global Fire Power breakdown.
Information is limited on the size of the PAVN which is estimated to include 470,000 active-duty troops, broken down to include: around 400,000 in the Ground Force, 40,000 in Navy, Air Force and Air Defence have 30,000 together, and the additional Border Defence Force and Coast Guard make up another 40,000. All ground troops, army corps, military districts, and specialised arms belong to the Ministry of National Defence directly under the command of the Central Military Commission, the Minister of Defence, and the General Staff of the Vietnam People's Army. The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces is the President of Vietnam, although this position is nominal and real power is assumed by the Secretary of the Central Military Commission who acts as de-facto Commander. Also, the Minister of National Defence oversees all operations of the Ministry and the PAVN.
Since World War II, the PAVN relied almost entirely on weapons and equipment derived from the former Soviet Union. Russia remains the largest arms-supplier of newer PAVN weaponry. Although in recent years, Vietnam has diversified its procurement with purchases from other countries, including: Belarus, France, India, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and Ukraine. New weapons, armour, and equipment is notably sourced from Israel – for example the PKMS, GK1, and GK3 guns are three Vietnam made indigenous guns modelled after the Galil ACE of Israel. The growing cooperation with Israel has resulted in a strong mixture of Russian and Israeli weapons. In 2016, former US President Barack Obama announced the lifting of the lethal weapons embargo on Vietnam. This increased Vietnamese military choices from other countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, which has accelerated efforts to modernise the Armed Forces. The Government prioritises economic development and growth while maintaining steady military expenditure at 2.4% of GDP.
To know more about Vietnam’s military capability, access the following resources:
Defence White Paper
Vietnam's first Defence White Paper in ten years was released on 25 November 2019. Traditionally, Vietnam's White Papers are generic, non-offensive policy statements on external threats to Vietnamese security and how the Ministry of National Defence plans to address them. Wrapped in Marxist-Leninist ideological narrative and steeped in coded language, it is typically difficult to determine a clear message from these documents. However, the latest Defence White Paper contains Hanoi's clearest warning yet to the nations near exclusive security threat: China.
Despite Hanoi's normally cautious approach towards its larger northern neighbour, the 2019 official document discusses Beijing's destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea. Most notably, the White Paper reads 'Divergencies between Vietnam and China regarding sovereignty in the East Sea [South China Sea] are of historical existence, which need to be settled with precaution, avoiding negative impacts'. Simultaneously demonstrating Hanoi's commitment to international maritime legal principles and indicating that Vietnam will continue to counterbalance Beijing on multiple fronts. The White Paper also identifies non-traditional security issues of concern, such as cyber threats, terrorism, climate change, maritime piracy, and natural and environmental disasters. The latest iteration stresses these issues pose an 'acute challenge to peace, security, stability and cooperation for development in the region.'
Long-term doctrines are re-asserted in the White Paper, including the much quoted 'three no's' broken down as: no military alliances, no foreign bases and usage of the territory for military activities, and no siding with one country against another. Additionally, it highlights elements of Vietnam's strategic doctrine – based on the pillars of self-reliance and resilience – and national defence struggle to set all disputes peacefully. The paper emphasises the significant caveat that any form of defence is acceptable with the homeland under attack. To learn more about the impact of Hanoi’s defence policy, read the resources below.
- War on the Rocks | How to Read Vietnam's Latest Defense White Paper: A Message to Great Powers
- The Diplomat | Vietnam's New Defense White Paper in the Spotlight
- The Diplomat | Vietnam's Defense Policy of 'No' Quietly Saves Room for 'Yes'
- Australian Strategic Policy Institute | Resolute and determined: Vietnam's new defence white paper
- Foreign Policy | Vietnam Draws Lines in the Sea
In the defence and security spheres, Vietnam has enhanced and consolidated relations with 80 countries and many international organisations. The positive trajectory of security cooperation with Japan, the US, India, and Australia is signalled in the 2019 Defence White Paper which identifies multilateral security cooperation as an area of flexibility. Vietnam calls 14 countries its 'strategic partners' and three additional countries – China, Russia, and India – are 'comprehensive strategic partners'. Vietnam's new emphasis on multilateral defence cooperation enables enhancement of its defence collaboration with global partners. Benign forums, such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum, promote regional peace and stability while their military exercises do not target any specific country. This makes them ideal venues for Hanoi to pursue defence diplomacy, explained in the following video.
In the wake of growing tensions in Vietnam's neighbourhood, especially in the South China Sea and China's economic links with Cambodia and Laos perceived as encircling the coastal nation, the main security challenges are now threats to sovereignty. Hanoi is considering the strategy of strengthening defence ties with Washington. In 2018, Vietnam participated for the first time in the Rim of the Pacific (known as RIMPAC) military exercise, after first sending observers in 2012 and 2016. To learn more about the world’s largest international maritime exercise involving allies and partners of the United States, watch the following video.
India and Vietnam upgraded their ties to the level of Comprehensive Strategic partnership in 2016 and two years later signed a deal to step up defence cooperation further. The two countries are progressively increasing their defence ties with a vision to maintain peace and stability in the region. In December 2020 the Indian Navy took part in the 'passage exercise' with the Vietnamese Navy in the South China Sea as part of efforts to boost maritime cooperation.
Formal defence relations between Australia and Vietnam were established in February 1998 and formalised a year later, with bilateral agreements and security links continuing to grow. The long-running Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) sees personnel training in both countries and a Memorandum of Understanding for Defence Cooperation was signed by Defence Ministers in November 2010. Recently, Vietnam and Australia have agreed on a three-year action plan to advance their relations to the level of comprehensive strategic partnership. It would focus on three priority areas: enhance economic engagement, build knowledge and innovation partnerships, and importantly, deepen strategic, defence and security cooperation. The two countries will continue to broaden bilateral security connections, including in the maritime and cyber domains, and work together to combat transnational crime.
For more information on Vietnam’s growing list of strategic partners, see the resources below:
- Russia Insight | ASIAN ALLIES: Putin And Vietnamese Leader Agree Strategic Partnership & Dollar Free Trade
- StratNewsGlobal | 'Defence, Security One Of Five Pillars In Vietnam-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership'
- Strategic News International | We Are Considering Buying Defence Equipment Made In India: Vietnamese envoy
- CNA | Vietnam and New Zealand elevate ties to strategic partnership
- Covert Cabal | What is RIMPAC?
- VOA | Vietnam explores increasing foreign military cooperation to resist China
- Vietnam Express | Vietnam shows up at world's largest naval exercise
- Hanoi Times | Vietnam-Australia advance relations with three pillar strategic action plan
- The Times of India | India and Vietnam Strengthening of Defence Relations
- Defense News | Japan to export defense tech to Vietnam under new agreement
- The Diplomat | In Rare Three-Party Conclave, Vietnam Pushes Back Against Growing Chinese Influence
- Vietnam’s 2019 Defence White Paper clearly outline that it viewed China as the biggest point of concern in the region. With increasing tension focused on island disputes in the South China Sea, can Vietnam and China sort their differences through focusing on ideological alignments, or is their history too littered with conflict and disputes to allow for a resolution based entirely on political similarities? What opportunities does this present Australia in the region and what risk comes with that opportunity?
- Australia and Vietnam have significantly improved relationships since the end of the war, with significant military exchanges now occurring between the two countries. Should increased military engagement with Vietnam by Australia be left to evolve as part of the natural development of diplomatic relations, or does the current situation in the region call for a more proactive engagement?
- Vietnam remain an active member of many regional diplomatic and regional forums, seeking to expand already close ties with neighbours such as Laos and Cambodia. Will Vietnam seek to become a powerhouse in South East Asia? Is there any risk this will be viewed as expansionism by nations such as China? How is Australia likely to view any attempts by Vietnam to increase its military influence?
- Relations between Vietnam and the US are still framed by the conflict that was the Vietnam War, with various presidential administrations taking different approaches to engagement with the former enemy. Considering that both nations view Chinese growth with significant caution, is there an opportunity for fresh diplomatic ties between the two nations, or are the ghosts of the past still too present in the minds of strategic thinkers? Can Australia play a role in helping improve relations between the US and Vietnam?