HANOI -- Vietnam is looking to beef up its defense capabilities, particularly now that the U.S. has fully lifted its arms embargo against the country.
It is especially keen to enhance its air patrols to counter China, which has been building military facilities on artificial islands in the South China Sea. The problem is the hefty price tag of U.S. gear. As an alternative, Vietnam is apparently looking to buy cheaper secondhand aircraft from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.
More than a bargain
Vietnam has long wanted anti-submarine aircraft and many analysts thought Vietnam would move quickly to purchase one from the U.S. once the arms embargo was lifted. But Japan has also emerged as a potential supplier. According to a Japanese official, the Vietnamese navy informally asked in the spring to buy retired MSDF P-3C anti-submarine aircraft.
The P-3C patrol plane is a derivative of the P-3 Orion, a surveillance plane made by Lockheed Martin of the U.S. Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries is licensed to build the aircraft, which has broad search capabilities and is good at detecting submarines. The MSDF is said to own about 80 of the planes.
Vietnam frets about China's underwater threat. Beijing is estimated to have at least 70 submarines. The Southeast Asian country has purchased six Kilo-class submarines from Russia since 2015. But that is far from enough to counter China. An improved air patrol fleet is essential to its anti-submarine capabilities.
Reuters reports that Vietnam is expected to ask Lockheed Martin to for pricing and availability data on four to six older U.S. Navy P-3 Orions in the next few months. A brand-new P-3 would probably go for at least $80 million, which would keep Vietnam from buying more than one at a time.
But money is not the only reason why Vietnam is turning to Japan. First, Japan will have more P-3C aircraft available. The MSDF has been replacing the propeller-driven planes with the cutting-edge P-1 jet since 2013. Also, Vietnam hopes to get training along with the planes. P-3C pilots must be able to distinguish enemy submarines from other craft by the sound of their screws, for instance. The MSDF is considered to be one of the most sophisticated operators of the aircraft in the world. Vietnam appears to think it would be easier to learn from Japan, with which it has political and economic ties.
In addition, Vietnam apparently hopes to hone its skills through joint exercises with the MSDF. Japanese P-3Cs have been visiting Danang, in central Vietnam, for several years. This year, the two sides are scheduled to hold joint search and rescue drills. For the MSDF, the exercise is an opportunity to show off its humanitarian work. For Vietnam, it could provide advance training with the P-3C.
In late May, after meeting with visiting U.S. President Barack Obama, Tran Dai Quang, his Vietnamese counterpart, welcomed the complete lifting of the 41-year-old arms embargo, which dates to the end of the Vietnam War. "Both countries have completely normalized relations," Tran said at a joint news conference with Obama after their meeting.
The lifting of the restrictions will encourage Vietnam to allow U.S. Navy ships to call at Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic port in the south of the country. The U.S. is eager to get access to the strategic port. The first U.S. Navy destroyer is expected to call in the autumn or later, something that China is bound to notice.
China remains one of Vietnam's most important neighbors. It is the country's second-largest trade partner in value terms, accounting for 20% of the total, and the Communist Party of Vietnam is modeled after its Chinese counterpart.
Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich skipped the June 3 annual forum known as the Shangri-La Dialogue on Asian security in Singapore. Instead he sent his deputy, Nguyen Chi Vinh, to the conference. Ngo may have been trying to avoid annoying China, which is sparring with the U.S. over Beijing's military buildup in the South China Sea.
For now, Hanoi is at pains to avoid provoking China by putting on military muscle too quickly, or siding openly with the U.S.