All posts by Zachary Abuza

Maritime Security in Sabah: ESSCOMM On the Rise

By Zachary Abuza, PhD

Security in Sabah

 In 2013, a group of several hundred armed militants from the southern Philippines landed in the Sabahan city of Lahud Datu in an attempt to retake the land in the name of the Sultan of Sulu. 10 security force personnel and 6 civilians were killed. 45 militants were killed, 30 were captured and nine were sentenced to death. Since then, the eastern Sabah State of Malaysia has witnessed a series of armed incursions, kidnapping for ransom, one of which led to the decapitation of a Malaysian policeman. Additionally, from March 2016 to April 2017, a spate of maritime kidnappings threatened regional trade. According to open source data, 70 seamen from six countries were taken in 19 separate incidents.1 Five were killed during the attacks, while others died while in captivity. By the fall of 2016, pirates were attacking large ocean going vessels, including Korean and Vietnamese vessels, while a Japanese ship took evasive action.

This forced the establishment of trilateral maritime patrols involving the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While that led to a sharp decline in maritime incidents, they recommenced in 2018 and again in June 2019. Gunmen kidnapped 10 Malaysian fishermen, though they were soon released. Since 2017, Malaysian police have arrested 39 members of the Abu Sayyaf (ASG), a jihadist group, including two in 2019. Additionally, some of the most important terrorist cells arrested in Malaysia have been in Sabah, a key transit route for foreign fighters entering and leaving the Southern Philippines, including at least three of five suicide bombers since July 2018. All of this points to the fact that Sabah is not only the crux of Malaysia security, but regional security as well.


The Malaysian government established the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) in April 2013 in response to the chaotic and un-coordinated response to the Lahud Datu incursion.

The organization was supposed to be a coordinated and joint operational headquarters for the Malaysian Armed Forces (RMAF), the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), including the Special Branch which is the lead counterterrorism agency, the maritime police, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). The navy has deployed special forces to the region, and upgraded their fleet of small craft, as well as set up two offshore vessels as operational hubs. The maritime police established two operational bases on coastal islands.

Starting in 2015, Malaysia deployed the first of eight advanced coastal radar stations to give them greater maritime domain awareness (MDA). It was an important step. In 2018, Malaysian officials claimed to have thwarted 10 incursions by ASG militants, and killed nine kidnapping suspects in maritime skirmishes. The only successful maritime kidnapping in 2018, was that of two Indonesian fishermen.

A map of the ESSCOM area of responsibility (Wikimedia Commons)

But there were a number of shortcomings. Most importantly, Malaysia has little experience in joint operations, let alone inter-agency operations. ESSCOM was faced with an almost insurmountable challenge. It also goes to the highest levels as there is no formal National Security Council-like process.

Even with the nascent inter-agency planning and operational process, rivalries remained problematic. In its first operational year in 2014, it had a budget of RM660 million ($200 million at the time), but there were immediate fights over it. The army still controls the lion’s share of the ESSCOMM budget, despite being a largely maritime and policing issue. Many security analysts, however, noted that the police were the worst when it comes to coordination and inter-agency cooperation. That intransigence has given the army the space to step in. When there is close cooperation within ESSCOMM, it tends to come down to personal relationships, rather than formal coordinating mechanisms and processes. But even operational areas of responsibility between the RMAF, the police and MMEA were not always delineated and de-conflicted.

Budgets remain very tight. Even before the historic victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the first opposition government in 61 years, Malaysian defense spending began to fall from its peak in 2015. The $4.5 billion debt that the PH government inherited from the government of Najib Razak from its massive 1MDB fraud case will mean that Malaysian defense spending will continue to fall as the government is predicting large deficits  for the next few years. In the past five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military expenditure data set, Malaysia’s defense budget fell from RM16.1 billion to RM14 billion, a 13 percent decline. In dollar terms, in the past five years, Malaysia’s defense budget contracted by 22 percent from $4.1 to $3.2 billion. Malaysia has among the lowest defense expenditure as a percent of government spending, at 4.3 percent. This has declined from 5.5 percent a decade ago. In the past decade, Malaysian defense spending as a percent of GDP was cut in half from 2 to 1 percent. We see this in terms of per capita spending as well. In the past five years, Malaysia’s defense spending has fallen from $160 to $108 per capita, a 32 percent decline.

But the problem isn’t simply budgetary; it is one of priorities. The RMAF budget is dominated by the army, despite the fact that most of the country’s security threats are maritime in nature. The army’s budget is larger than the combined budget of the navy and air force, and it has 80,000 men compared to the navy and air force with only 15,000 each. Moreover, this fiscal austerity is shared across the agencies.

Another issue is the sheer scope of the area to patrol. The coastline of ESSCOMM alone is around 1,400 kilometers, and includes seven districts in eastern Sabah. There have been discussions about expanding it, but to date that has not happened. The ratio of resources to area is just not there. In addition to the geographical scope is the fact that Sabah is home to an estimated 800,000 illegal migrants, most of whom are ethnic Tausigs, the same ethnicity of most of Abu Sayyaf. Those clan and kinship ties have proven invaluable for Abu Sayyaf and other kidnapping syndicates.

Finally, there is the fact that Sabah is treated differently. There is a sense of “internal colonialism,” which is shared by both Sabahans and peninsular Malaysians. RMAF forces from Peninsular Malaysia resist deployment there.

Reforms in the Offing

 The news is not all bad. There is an understanding of ESSCOMM’s weaknesses and an acknowledgement that it needs to be fixed. A former Sabah assistant minister, Ramlee Marahaban, from the former ruling UMNO party, provided a solid criticism. For him it was not a need for more resources or personnel, but a shift from army authority to the police and MMEA, with clearer lines of authority:

“The weakness of ESSCOMM, which has been in operation for six years now, is due to the lack of a clear jurisdiction of the agencies involved. Full power should be given to the police and maritime agencies as they have the authority to arrest, investigate, and prosecute. The army can support through asset deployment, including usage of radar. The number of assets and personnel stationed at the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSCOMM) is more than sufficient but the weakness lies in the overlapping of power and duties.”

When the author interviewed senior members of the Pakatan Harapan government, they broadly concurred with this. Though they would not spell out the details of the ESSCOMM

reorganization, they made clear that it would be much more in terms of statutory authorities, chain of command, and procedures, rather than a host of new resources, manpower, or assets. The Minister of Defense Mohamad Mat Sabu announced the government’s intention to re-organize ESSCOMM, on 6 May 2019, which has since been endorsed by the Inspector General of the Police. What is more likely in terms of personnel is changes in command of certain bases or security sectors.

The Deputy Minister of Defense, Liew Chin Tong, has made maritime security a priority: “[W]e have to realise that Malaysia is a maritime nation and the seas are our lifeline, with many resources coming from the waters, and many strategic water spaces to protect in an increasingly complex security environment.” While he acknowledged that the army’s budget and size was unlikely to change, he was insistent that they would have to broaden the scope of its operations and take on some maritime roles. As he wrote, “The army has to learn to swim.” The army will soon deploy one battalion to train alongside naval special forces in Sabah. Perhaps more importantly, the Army is contemplating a major reorganization, along territorial lines, which would give Sabah greater primacy. But more importantly he prioritized joint operations, and at least pointed to “whole of government” solutions to Malaysian security concerns. These plans will be officially rolled out in the 2019 Defense White Paper, which should be released soon. 

While the overall budgetary pressure on the RMAF is large, the budgets allocated for Sabah-deployed forces have not taken such hits. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad is not a fan of conventional military spending, which he views as being something that antagonizes China. The Defense White Paper has prioritized non-traditional security threats, including those in Sabah, such as kidnapping for ransom and terrorism, in particular.

The government has a political incentive to improve the security situation in Sabah. The Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) is a key member of the governing coalition with 8 of 121 parliamentary seats; and the state’s Chief Minister, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, heads the party. In the 2018 election, Sabah proved to be a critically important vote bank, and it will remain so. The Sabah government itself is supportive of ESSCOMM. Shafie Apdal said in June 2019, “We welcome whatever changes, whether it is for cost cutting or not, but most important is the effectiveness of ESSCOMM’s role in Sabah.” He previously  made it very clear that ESSCOMM is not going away. The local economy in general, and tourism sector in particular, have been very hard hit by the kidnappings. Moreover, the curfews are very unpopular.

The Special Branch also knows how important Sabah is in terms of counterterrorism. This area remains the key logistics hub for getting militants in and out of the southern Philippines. In 2018 alone, Malaysian police arrested 29 foreign fighters in Sabah. This is critical as the southern Philippines remains a key draw for foreign fighters following the loss of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and it is the only place in all of Southeast Asia where militants have any possibility of controlling territory. Militants in the Southern Philippines continue to bill themselves as the leaders of the Islamic State in East Asia.

While Malaysian security forces have publicly stated that they have not seen a revival of JI networks, as is very evident in Indonesia, privately, a number of Malaysian security analysts have told the author this is nonsense, pointing to the resilience of Darul Islam Sabah, which since 2014 has been working with Indonesian JAD and other pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines, but whose ties to traditional JI networks remains deep and enduring. In the ideology of both JI and ISIS is the concept of “Hijrah,” emigrating to join a struggle.

MMEA’s Growing Pains

One of the keys to Sabah’s security is the development of the MMEA, which is lauded for their professionalism and lack of corruption. It was established in 2004. While the police feared losing their maritime police functions, the Navy advocated for it because they didn’t want brown water constabulary functions. The MMEA was originally under the Prime Minister’s  Department, though since late 2018 it has been under the Ministry of Home Affairs. To date, it has been headed by a uniformed naval officer, while much of its senior leadership are also naval personnel. But now in its 16th year, it is developing its own leadership from within its ranks.

Like every security agency in Malaysia, its budget remains tight. It is currently constructing three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) under license from the Netherland’s Damen Group. Japan recently donated two OPVs from its Coast Guard, as it has with the Philippines and Vietnam. The Malaysian Navy transferred two OPVs to them, as well. However, the deployment of smaller fast craft is what remains so important in the Sulu Sea off of Sabah.

A map depicting a series of kidnappings near Sabah (The Star/ANN/File)

While Sabah remains very important for MMEA, it has a host of other concerns: the territorial dispute with Indonesia, the Strait of Malacca, and countering Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) gray zone operations in the South China Sea, including defending Petronas oil platforms at Luconia Shoal that have been increasingly harassed by the CCG. The organization also has limitations in its personnel pipeline, as well as sheer budgetary constraints.

Trilateral Maritime Patrols

 The trilateral maritime patrols that commenced in 2017 are far short of their potential, yet they have worked. The data is very clear: since the patrols began maritime incidents have declined. And while the improved situation is not irreversible, other scholars haver agreed with this assessment. And in addition to naval and coast guard coordination, Malaysia and the Philippines established a maritime policing agreement in 2017. In July 2017, the three states augmented the trilateral maritime agreement, with a trilateral air patrol agreement.

(From left) Malaysian Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Hussein, Indonesian Defense Minister General Ryamizard Ryacudu and Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the Third Trilateral Defence Minister Meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Aug 2, 2016. (Photo:EPA)

But by focusing limited resources on protecting key channels, they are leaving a lot of open ocean un-patrolled. While that might be fine for countering piracy, maritime kidnappings, and protecting regional shipping it has a downside for illicit smuggling and infiltrating terror suspects in and out of the Philippines.

There is still not a single place where the patrols are coordinated, and there is no fusion center such as what exists in Singapore’s Changi naval base. This coordination problem remains an issue of pride and sovereignty, where every state agrees to it in theory, but as long as they get to run it. But no state has the resources dedicated to make this effective. And they have been unwilling to take funding that Singapore or other outside partners (the United States and Australia) have offered. None of the states want to broaden this to be a multilateral force. Suggestions to shelve the sovereignty issue by basing it in a neutral third party, such as Brunei, have gone nowhere. Nonetheless, the Changi Fusion Centre in Singapore has greatly expanded its monitoring and reporting capabilities. Indeed, more information from the Sulu Sea region is being shared with them by both states as well as the shipping and fishing companies.

The lack of clear demarcated maritime borders that the author originally assumed would be a major impediment to the trilateral patrols has not borne out. The Philippines and Indonesia demarcated their 1,162 kilometer maritime boundary in the Celebes Sea in 2014, which came into effect in 2019. Malaysia and Indonesia still do not have a maritime border between Sabah and East Kalimantan, though there have not been any major flareups in the past few years. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his country’s claim to Sabah (still on the books, but long shelved) in 2016.2 The Malaysian government refused to discuss the issue with the Philippines, and maritime cooperation has continued.

It is a mere 15 minutes by fast boat between Lahud Datu and Tawi Tawi, so a clearly demarcated border, at least a de facto one, is important. At the very least, the countries have not let ongoing legal disputes interfere with maritime policing operations. Indeed, Indonesia and Malaysia were able to wrest the right of hot pursuit, a major concession, from the Philippines, after threatening unilateral military action.

The Malaysian security forces have maintained a very active defense posture on the water. They have not been shy about using force, and in 2018 thwarted ten attempted incursions, and killed nine suspected kidnappers, including four in a well-publicized incident in April.

No doubt, each country has increased their maritime capabilities, but they are still dwarfed by their land-based counterparts. In all three nations the army’s budget remains larger than the navy and air force’s combined. Indonesia’s attempts to stand up their Coast Guard continues to fall short. None of the three countries has maritime capabilities in proportion with their security needs or coastlines. And yet, even a small degree of coordinated patrols and additional resources has been a relatively effective deterrent.


 No Malaysian security official that the author interviewed saw any significant improvements in the security situation in the Southern Philippines, and especially throughout Sulu and Tawi Tawi. Despite bilateral pledges of cooperation in counterterrorism, they expect incursions, maritime kidnappings and ship-jackings to continue. And since they have little confidence in Philippine authorities, they know that the onus was on them to enhance security and deter incursions.

And yet, there is real concern that this over time will be a money pit that Malaysia simply cannot afford. As one Malaysian security analyst put it: “They don’t have an endgame [in Sabah]. Tell me how this ends?”

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter@ZachAbuza.


1. The author maintains an open-source data set on southern Philippine security incidents by non-state actors. As it is based on media reporting, it tends to be conservative, as many incidents do not get reported on.

2. The Philippines claims that Sabah was patent of the Sultanate of Sulu, which leased the land to the North Borneo Company, a British royal concession in 1878. The British claim that the land was ceded. In 1963, Sabahans voted in a referendum to join Malaya (along with Singapore and Sarawak), creating Malaysia. The Philippines has maintained the claim, though it has largely been dormant, until President Duterte’s 2016 statement.

Featured Image: Philippine government soldiers fighting the Maute group watch a helicopter attack (not pictured) as they take a break inside a military camp in Marawi City, southern Philippines May 30, 2017. (REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Trilateral Maritime Patrols in the Sulu Sea: Asymmetry in Need, Capability, and Political Will

By Zachary Abuza, Ph.D.

A spate of shipjackings and kidnapping-for-ransoms has imperiled regional trade in Southeast Asia and prompted calls for trilateral maritime policing in the waters between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Though an important first step, this will not end the kidnappings or lead to an overall improved security situation.  

The Context

Starting on 26 March 2016, militants from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) began a spate of maritime kidnappings. Three Indonesian vessels and a Malaysian tugboat were hijacked, and some 18 sailors were taken hostage. 

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A screen capture from Abu Sayyaf’s fifth video of Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad (l), and Canadian, Robert Hall (r), released on 14 May 2016.

Their treatment was very different than the three Western hostages abducted from a Davao resort in September 2015. The two Canadians, Norwegian, and Filipina were held incommunicado for a period of time, with six videos demanding ransoms issued over seven months. The hostages were filmed in all but one video in front of the black flag of the Islamic State, and in the last two wearing orange T-Shirts, representing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit of Islamic State (IS) prisoners. The two Canadian hostages were executed when their ransom deadline, already extended and reduced, were not paid, on 25 April and 13 June. On 24 June, the ASG released the Filipina hostage as an “act of good will,” though, at the time of this writing they still hold the Norwegian prisoner.

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Photograph of the four Malaysian sailors, released via Facebook, on 15 April 2016.

The Malaysian and Indonesian sailors, by contrast, were quickly put in contact with their families and companies to arrange ransom payments. Although the ASG threatened to behead the four Malaysian sailors if no ransom was paid, there was no IS imagery in the photo posted on Facebook in the proof of life picture that the ASG released. In all three cases, ransoms were paid and the suspects released. Various press reports indicate that the four Malaysians were released with the payment of 140 million pesos ($2.97 million), while ten Indonesians were released following a 50 million pesos ($1.06 million) ransom, and the final four released with a 15 million pesos ($319,000) ransom. The payment of ransoms was always officially denied. While governments may have not paid the ransom, family members, shipping firms, friends, and insurance companies appear to have come up with the requisite funds. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged that money changed hands, but “channeled not as ransom, but to a body in the Philippines which assists in an Islamic struggle.” There is no ideology here, this is abject criminality.

Not surprisingly, with the payment of large ransoms, shipjackings/kidnappings have continued. On 20 June another Indonesian tugboat was boarded and seven of its thirteen crew members taken hostage. Though the remaining six were able to steer the ship to a safe port, the ASG is demanding $4.8 million in ransom for the release of the seven. Within days of the hijacking the captain was able to call his wife and convey the ransom demand.

The Costs

These shipjackings/maritime kidnappings imperil regional trade. While only a small amount of the $40 billion in regional maritime trade passes through these waters, it is not insignificant. Indonesian coal exports from East Kalimantan account for 70 percent of  total Philippine coal imports, worth over $800 million. There are an estimated 55 million metric tons of goods that transit these waters annually. These exports are all the more important as Chinese imports of raw materials from Southeast Asia continue to fall with China’s economic slowdown. On 21 April 2016, Indonesian authorities temporarily  blocked ships from sailing to the Philippines, warning that the waters were becoming the “New Somalia.” The small shipping companies run on thin margins, and the millions of dollars in ransoms pose a threat to the small-vessel maritime shipping that dominates the region. Following the 20 June kidnapping, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, announced a ban on licenses to ship coal to the Philippines from Indonesian ports, “The moratorium on coal exports to the Philippines will be extended until there is a guarantee for security from the Philippines government.”

Calls for Trilateral Maritime Policing

For the first time in many years, Malaysian and Indonesian leaders have been speaking of the Southern Philippines as being the weak link in regional security and began to call for trilateral maritime policing in  waters to the north and northeast of Sabah. There was a most un-ASEAN drumbeat of threats by Indonesian civilian and military leaders to engage in unilateral military operations to rescue their sailors. On 27 April, Philippine President Aquino acquiesced to Indonesian and Malaysian calls for joint maritime patrols based on the joint operations in the Strait of Malacca. 

On 5 May, the three foreign ministers met and issued a communique “recognized the growing security challenges, such as those arising from armed robbery against ships, kidnapping, transnational crimes and terrorism in the region, particularly in reference to the maritime areas of common concern.”

  1. To conduct patrol among the three countries using existing mechanisms as a modality;
  2. To render immediate assistance for the safety of people and ships in distress within the maritime areas of common concern;
  3. To establish a national focal point among the three countries to facilitate timely sharing of information and intelligence as well as coordination in the event of emergency and security threats; and,
  4. To establish a hotline of communication among the three countries to better facilitate coordination during emergency situations and security threats.
  5. They instruct the relevant agencies of the three countries to meet as soon as possible and subsequently convene on a regular basis to implement and periodically review the above-mentioned measures and also to formulate the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

With the agreement in principle, the sides had to negotiate a standard operating procedure, which had to have more teeth than a poorly implemented 2002 trilateral agreement to respond to Abu Sayyaf attacks.

On 20 June, the Malaysian, Indonesian, and Philippine Defense Ministers agreed to establish transit corridors. “The ministers have agreed in principle to explore the following measures, including a transit corridor within the maritime areas of common concern, which will serve as designated sea lanes for mariners,” they said in a joint statement. In addition, they pledged to increase the number of air and sea patrols as well as maritime escorts. 

Most controversially, the draft SOP will allow for the right of hot pursuit, something that the Indonesians insisted on. The Indonesian Minister of Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu told the media “We’ve agreed that if another hostage situation occurs, we will be allowed to enter [Philippine territory].” His Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, who was in the last week of his job, qualified the agreement: the hijacking/kidnapping must have taken place in Indonesian waters, before Indonesian vessels could enter Philippine territory, and Philippine security forces would have to be immediately informed so that a “coordinated and joint operation could immediately be undertaken.”


Even if the three countries implement the SOP and begin implementing trilateral policing, there would be serious limits for seven key reasons.

First, this is not the Strait of Malacca, one of the most critical maritime straits in the world. Those patrols, now in their 11th year, have been successful and resulted in a dramatic drop in piracy and shipjackings. But they have benefited from members with very robust capabilities, such as Singapore and Malaysia, a critical international chokepoint, and with  technical support from the United States, which made it clear that if the littoral states did not increase patrols it would. The Strait of Malacca has the most sophisticated network of radars and maritime domain awareness capabilities in the region.

Second, sovereignty remains the paramount concern.  No country will allow “joint” patrols in their territorial waters. They might do “coordinated patrols” in their respective national waters, but there will be no joint patrols. Each country has been adamant on this point. As the Philippines said, “’joint exercises” can only take place “in the high seas and not within [Philippine] territorial waters.” As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi put it, any joint actions “must be agreed on without any of them sacrificing their sovereignty.”

Even the agreement on hot pursuit seems problematic. While Malaysia and Indonesian may be keen to have the right to hot pursuit into Philippine waters, it is hard to see them accepting one another exercising this right.  Second, the incoming Duterte administration has not signaled their approval of this agreement. It is possible that they do not feel bound by agreements signed by the outgoing Aquino administration.

Third, and more to the point, this really requires Indonesian leadership. As we have seen, President Widodo’s Maritime Fulcrum Strategy has been terribly implemented, and he has shown little interest in compelling his various services and ministries to come up with an integrated implementation strategy, let alone serve as a regional leader of ASEAN. The Indonesian military’s threat perception and budgetary allocation priorities have returned to an inward focus, after nearly a decade of maritime orientation.

Fourth, the capabilities of all three remain very limited. There is an asymmetry between the threat and the capabilities  deployed to this region. Even though Malaysia has beefed up maritime policing off of Sabah, especially following the incursion by Sultan of Sulu-backed gunmen in 2013, it has not been enough to prevent the ASG from still launching kidnappings. Malaysia and Indonesia have only limited naval, coast guard, and maritime law enforcement capabilities, and this region has not been a priority. The Strait of Malacca and increasingly the South China Sea have been far greater priorities. But those limited capabilities are exactly why cooperation is so necessary.

Fifth, there are still significant suspicions between the countries and lingering border disputes. The Indonesians remain distrustful and angry towards the Malaysians over the maritime demarcation between Sabah and East Kalimantan in the Ambalat region. On 26 June, Indonesian jet fighters intercepted a Malaysian military cargo plane flying too close to Natuna Island. While Indonesia and the Philippines successfully demarcated their maritime boundary in 2014, Malaysia and the Philippines do not have a formally demarcated maritime border owing to the disputed claim over Sabah. That may possibly worsen as president elect Duterte stated that he would revive the Philippine claim to Sabah which had been dormant for number of years.

EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The PH-RI EEZ Boundary is defined by geodetic lines connecting eight points. These points are indicated in geographical coordinates that form a single line as illustrated in the chart shown below. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8.
EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8. (Government of the Philippines/Government of Indonesia)

Sixth, one needs to study a map of the trade routes to understand that even if there is  international cooperation as well as designated corridors, they will only have a limited impact.

A majority of Abu Sayyaf operations occur in Philippine waters, and only a small portion occur in waters that may have joint patrols. If militants want to avoid Indonesians exercising their right to hot pursuit, they merely have to wait for targets to enter Philippine waters. Manila is unlikely to allow armed convoys from Malaysia or Indonesia, to continue into Philippine waters, let alone ports, even if they do not have the assets in place to receive the handoff.  The weak link remains the limited capabilities of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement authorities. What little the Philippines actually has is primarily focused on their maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Image courtesy of author)

Even if we take away the large LNG tankers and large container ships that come up through the Lombok and Makassar Straights, which then either continue on to Northeast Asia to the east of the Philippines or cut through the deep waters between the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Tawi Tawi Islands of the Philippines, there are simply too many small tugboats, small bulk cargo ships, and tramp steamers that ply those waters to protect.

Ships coming out of Balikpapan and Samarinda in East Kalimantan or Makassar and Monado on Sulawesi traveling across the Celebes Sea to General Santos or Davao in the Philippines could be better protected. Yet, ships leaving any of those four ports traveling to Cebu, Cagayan d’Oro or Manila must transit the waters around Jolo, Tawi Tawi and Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf’s heartland. Likewise, ships sailing out of Western Sabah or Sarawak states traveling to Manila, Cebu, or ports in northern Mindanao can operate at the furthest edges of Abu Sayyaf capabilities. But ships from there or from the port of Sandakan going to Zamboanga or east to General Santos or Davao must transit the pirate infested waters between Tawi Tawi and Basilan. Abu Sayaf can launch quick attacks from their hideouts along this poorly policed coastline throughout the archipelago. 

Again, the ASG can operate close to shore, in Philippine waters, without triggering the right of hot pursuit. And even if Indonesian or Malaysian forces were able to operate in hot pursuit, only on sea; they can do nothing when the Abu Sayyaf reach shore.

Finally, the lesson of Somalia is that international maritime cooperation cannot defeat piracy. Piracy is defeated on land, not sea. Despite ample support from the United States since 2002, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has proven unable and unwilling to  defeat the Abu Sayyaf group. This is a small group, geographically contained, and enjoys little popular appeal. Yet, they endure. There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the thuggish militants around. The ransoms not only go to bribing local officials, military, and law enforcement despite their vociferous denials, but local communities profit from the kidnappings as well. The proceeds have gone not just to buy new weapons and ammunition from the black market, but to support a sub-economy.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that new kidnap for ransom gangs are carrying out operations, and then selling their captives to ASG leaders such as Al Habsyi Misaya. The six Indonesian sailors who were not taken hostage on 20 June recounted that their seven colleagues were taken by two separate groups  with very different behavior and professionalism.

It is yet to be seen what approach president-elect Duterte will take. Like most issues, he has said one thing and immediately contradicted himself. He has has prided himself on the use of extra-judicial killings to eliminate Davao of crime and drugs, and said that Abu Sayyaf should be liquidated. He brashly warned the ASG that “there will be a time, there will be a reckoning,” but then said that it was not his “top priority,” and announced a willingness to negotiate with them. There is no evidence that they will accede to his demand that they “surrender unconditionally, release your prisoners, your hostages.” His messaging on the Bangsamoro peace process has likewise been contradictory, which has added to the sense of regional insecurity. 

Duterte recently warned that he would not continue the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program, re-orienting the security forces back to an internal security focus. The limited Philippine naval modernization program, may be very short-lived.  But then his Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana stated that the ASG was the country’s primary security threat, whose “illegal activities, including kidnapping, must stop,” Delfin warned: “We have to end this once and for all. This problem is giving us a very bad image abroad.”

In short, trilateral policing can only deliver so much until the capabilities of the Philippines improve. Delfin announced that military spending would be diverted from acquiring assets for use in the South China sea to fast patrol craft and helicopters for counter-terrorist operations. But it is hard to imagine that China will not act aggressively and start reclamation of Scarborough Shoal following an adverse ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, set for 12 July. Perhaps they will try to leverage that for further maritime assistance from the United States and other partners such as Australia and Japan.

Tempered Expectations

The frustration on the part of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments is palpable. In addition to hurting trade, a number of land-based kidnappings in Sabah since 2013, have impacted tourism.  Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman was blunt in calling for a meeting with his new Philippine counterpart following the 30 June inauguration of President Duterte:

“We need to have this urgent meeting. I would like to stress upon the seriousness of this problem that involves Filipino nationals. We accept that it is a complex issue. The Philippines military has been going after these people with limited success. The question now is how can we work together.”

So what can we expect? There may be some coordinated patrols,but expectations about what these entail should be low. These navies and maritime law enforcement organizations do not have a great track record of working together in this area, which for all three countries has received a disproportionately low share of their respective maritime security budgets.  

That they are even discussing them and trying to come up with standard operating procedures is well and good.  But this will need to be routinized and taken to a higher level if it is to succeed. Perhaps external actors, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and even Singapore, can help  bridge some of the gaps. 

The three sides are discussing database and intelligence sharing on local extremists and militants.  There have been suggestions of establishing joint military command posts, yet undefined. But an actual fusion center as what was established in Singapore seems a long way off, and the reality is that none of the three has adequate maritime domain awareness capabilities.

With regional trade dominated by slow tugboats and tramp steamers, even groups with limited capabilities such as Abu Sayyaf can wreak havoc in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. With limited capabilities amongst the three littoral states, there is an imperative to cooperation, especially considering the importance of regional trade. Yet a history of mistrust, continued border disputes, a fixation on sovereignty, and a lack of leadership is making the necessary cooperation more difficult to achieve.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.

Featured Image: A navy cutter patrols the shores of a fishing village near the capital town of Jolo in the southern Philippine province of Sulu 30 June 2000 as an outrigger races across its path. (AFP PHOTO)

Cam Ranh International Port Visits in Strategic Context

By Zachary Abuza and Nguyen Nhat Anh

On 2 May, the French amphibious assault ship FS Tonnerre arrived in the Cam Ranh International Port (CRIP) for a four day visit. It was the third international visit to the newly established CRIP, nee Cam Ranh Bay, following the mid-March visit of a Singaporean naval vessel and a mid-April visit by two Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force ships. These three visits reflect Vietnam’s strategic interests, most importantly, the development of an omni-directional foreign policy. While much attention will be paid to President Obama’s visit to Vietnam this month, it is important to note both how far bilateral relations have come, but also how much they are only a piece of Vietnam’s overall strategic framework.

The decision to give Cam Ranh the moniker “International Port” was a strategic one. Hanoi has long been called on to open up the port to foreign vessels transiting the region, but wanted to make sure that it was not aimed at any one country. Thus the port, which is one of the finest deep-water ports in the entire region and is full of new construction after the inauguration such as a new berthing area, pier, quay wall, and was opened up to all on a “commercial basis.” This is in line, if not a creative work around, with Hanoi’s “3 Nos” foreign policy (no alliances, no foreign military bases, and no policies that could be construed as being directed against any one state). The argument that any one foreign country could try to gain exclusive access to the port is nonsensical.

State President Truong Tan Sang at the grand opening ceremony of the Cam Ranh international port in Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam, March 8, 2016. Photo: Tuoi Tre.
State President Truong Tan Sang at the grand opening ceremony of the Cam Ranh International Port in Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam, March 8, 2016. Photo: Tuoi Tre.

Indeed, in bilateral defense talks held at the end of March 2016, Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh said that Vietnam had actively invited Chinese vessels to visit Vietnamese ports, including CRIP. Even though it was an unpopular move domestically, it signals the leadership’s intention that CRIP not be directed against any one country.

While it is clear that Vietnam-U.S. defense cooperation has deepened considerably over the last few years and will continue to do so, both sides seem to be content on the pace with which the relationship is moving for various reasons.

Vietnam clearly has a strategic interest in a more robust U.S. presence in the region, and has actively championed the right of U.S. Naval vessels to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), including past features that Vietnam itself claims and occupies. Vietnam also looks to the United States as the only thing between China and the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

However, although Hanoi is keen to further deepen ties with the United States, there remain many real impediments, including history, the continued legacy of Agent Orange, and the enormous costs associated with the cleanup of Bien Hoa, and criticism over human rights. Indeed, this year, Hanoi responded to the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, calling it “biased,” something it has not done and downplayed in the past few years. Furthermore, despite its embrace of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Hanoi is cautious about growing too close to the United States in the security realm, for fear of provoking a harsh reaction from China, hence its intention of displaying CRIP as a neutral, open-to-all port.

From 22-24 May, President Barack Obama will visit Vietnam, reciprocating the historic July 2015 visit to the United States by Vietnam Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. While many hope that President Obama will fully lift the arms embargo, others argue that Vietnam simply has too many human rights abuses to merit a full lifting. Indeed, his Secretary of Defense recently endorsed lifting the embargo in a Congressional hearing with Senator John McCain, a long proponent of ending the embargo. In early May, right before Obama’s visit, Vietnam hosted a defense symposium to which top U.S. arm corporations, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were invited. This will be more of a symbolic gesture, but in diplomacy, especially in such a historically fraught relationship, symbols matter.

US President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2015. (AFP). AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB
U.S. President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the White House in Washington, DC, July 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

But even still, limits exist. There are longstanding concerns about selling advanced technology to Vietnam for fear that it will be shared with Russia. Again, human right issues also interfere with the decision. Nevertheless, this is not to say that Vietnam’s purchase of U.S. weapons is impossible.

The one area that does seem ripe for sales is maritime aviation capabilities, something that the U.S. does have a stark comparative advantage in. Vietnam has expressed an interest in a stripped down P-3 Orion. In April 2016, a group of Vietnamese naval officers visited U.S. Patrol Squadron 47 in Hawaii and notably toured a P-3C in order to better understand its capability. Vietnam has also seen the P-3 in action in January 2016 during a joint HADR exercise between Vietnam and Japan. Boeing has suggested that one of its Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) suites would fit Vietnam’s needs.

Despite the regular presence of U.S. Naval vessels, which spend some 700 ship days a year in the South China Sea, and the recent visit by the USS Stennis to the Philippines, and the recent refusal of port access in Hong Kong by China, to date no U.S. vessel has called on CRIP.

Furthermore, Vietnamese rules stipulate that foreign naval vessels, including those of the U.S., can only call on Vietnamese ports once a year. Nevertheless, U.S. logistical ships have visited the port before for repair and maintenance service. In June 2012 USNS Richard E. Byrd, a Military Sealift Command supply ship, stopped at Cam Ranh’s repair facilities, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave a speech on board the moored ship, promising a stronger relationship between the two nations. The U.S. Navy has used their port call annually since 2009, albeit not at Cam Ranh Bay. Furthermore, when reporting the inauguration of CRIP, Vietnamese official media mentioned the possibility of U.S. aircraft carriers calling on the port by mentioning that CRIP can “accommodate military and civilian ships like aircraft carriers of up to 110,000 DWT (deadweight tonnage).” Hence, it is likely that a U.S. Navy ship will call on Cam Ranh Bay in the near future.

Leon Panetta speaks to the crew of the USNS Richard E. Byrd docked at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay in June 2012.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks to the crew of the USNS Richard E. Byrd docked at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay in June 2012. AFP/Getty Images.

In addition, the U.S. government has awarded Vietnam $40.1 million in FY2015-16 as part of its Maritime Security Initiative in order to “bolster its maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control within Vietnam’s maritime agencies.” The funding will also support the purchase of maritime defense equipment and support training and bilateral HADR exercises to improve interoperability.

The visit by the Singaporean naval vessel should have come as no surprise. ASEAN – for all of its faults and limitations – remains the cornerstone of Vietnamese foreign policy. It works assiduously to counter China’s aggressive moves to divide the grouping, especially ahead of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s expected ruling. Vietnam and Singapore have pledged to deepen ties and have suggested future bi and multi-lateral defense exercises.

Soon after, Vietnamese naval vessels and special forces soldiers participated in a regional counter-terrorism and anti-piracy exercise with Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and Indonesia. Interestingly, Vietnam sent HQ-381, a BPS-500 type missile corvette instead of its Gepard frigates. The HQ-318 was the first missile corvette built domestically in Vietnam in 1999, and it underwent capability upgrades in 2014. Vietnam has also increased its participation in multilateral exercises, including sending Hospital Ship 561 to the 2016 Komodo naval exercises in Indonesia in April 2016. Vietnam has extended maritime cooperation to entirely new partners as well, including a five day on-shore multilateral course by the Royal Navy’s Maritime Warfare School on EEZ enforcement. 

The visit by the French ship capped a week of the re-emergence of France as a player in Asian security, with the agreement in principle to supply Australia with 12 Barracuda submarines; beating out the Japanese Soryu-class. But the presence of one of France’s largest vessels at CRIP also suggests the potential for defense deals with Vietnam, which has hinted that it wants to reduce its dependence on Russia for its advanced weaponry. Vietnam has already purchased military lift planes from the French-led Airbus consortium. SIPRI, in its arm transfer database, shows that Vietnam has taken delivery of Exocet anti-ship and MICA anti-air missiles from France for its Dutch SIGMA-9814 corvettes; yet, as the negotiation for the corvettes seems to have been suspended, the fate of these missiles is uncertain. Reuters also reported that the Vietnamese military is currently in talk with Dassault on the Rafale multirole fighter as a possible replace for its antiquated but numerous MiG-21s. However, the Rafale’s high cost makes this procurement less likely.

But it is the relationship with Japan that portends the greatest potential. There have now been six high level strategic dialogues, and Japanese ships have made some nine port calls, the majority of which happened in the last five years. There are routine high level engagements. Although Japan has not sold any weapons to Vietnam, in 2014 it pledged to transfer six maritime patrol craft; the last were delivered in November 2015.

Japan's Defence Minister Gen Nakatani (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh (2nd L) talk at the Ministry of Defence in Hanoi, Vietnam November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer
Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh (2nd L) talk at the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi, Vietnam November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer.

The potential for deeper ties is clearly there. A meeting between the respective foreign Ministers in early May 2016 led to calls for deepened defense relations as well as the provision of more maritime patrol craft. As Japan experiences  the loss of the Soryu class vessels sale to Australia, Tokyo still needs a major arms sale to break into the world of the global arms industry. But while Japanese equipment is expensive and r technology transfer is unlikely, the defense relationship, including recent HADR operations, is growing so quickly that it might become a natural byproduct.

Both countries have called for a rules-based system in the South China Sea. Both would like each other to step up their respective operations in the South China Sea. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc recently called on Shinzo Abe’s government to make “effective efforts” in the South China Sea, but there are limits. Vietnam in unlikely to be overly confrontational towards China. And while many have called for Japan to join U.S. FONOPs, that is unlikely, simply as China has the ability to escalate its operations in the contested waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. Intercepts of Chinese planes in Japan’s southwest quadrant alone already account for over 50 percent of overall intercepts of foreign aircraft.   In 2015, there were 571 intercepts of Chinese planes, a 23 percent increase from 2014, taxing the Japanese military.

Despite these improvements and deepening cooperation with new defense partners, it is the bilateral defense relationship with Russia that remains the strongest. Newly elected Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich made his first overseas trip to Russia, where he reiterated that Vietnam will continue to rely on Russia for much of its weaponry and advanced training. Newly elected Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will also make Russia his first foreign destination in mid-May, ahead of President Obama’s visit. 

Vietnam’s third Gepard class frigate was recently floated in a Russian shipyard, with the fourth to be launched soon and delivered by September. There are reports that Vietnam will order another two, a total of six, while it has increased production of Molniya class missile ships under license from Russia. Five out of six Kilo submarines that Vietnam ordered from Russia have been delivered, and Russia is helping Vietnam construct the submarine base at Cam Ranh as part of the deal. Vietnam’s recent announcement that it was moving the Ministry of National Defense’s Ba Son Shipyard to a new location, increasing its production capabilities to 2,000 dead weight tons, also suggests increased domestic production under further Russian license.

A Gepard-class frigate built by Russia's Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant. Photo credit: Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant.
A Gepard-class frigate built by Russia’s Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant. Photo credit: Gorky Zelenodolsk Plant.

When Vietnam purportedly “invited” Russia back to Cam Ranh, it should not be taken as meaning a reopening of their Cold War era naval base, which closed in 1991, but simply as a commercial user of CRIP facilities. Nonetheless, in 1993 Moscow and Hanoi signed a 25 year agreement that allowed Russia to continue using a facility in Cam Ranh Bay for limited signals intelligence gathering. More recently Russia has deployed aerial refueling tankers from CRIP to support bombers that have flown “provocatively” near US airspace in Guam. U.S. calls on Vietnam to restrict such operations have fallen on deaf ears. Furthermore, in 2014, the procedure for Russian ships calling on Cam Ranh Bay was simplified: they only have to notify Vietnamese authority before doing so.

While there have been occasional reports that Vietnam wants to diversify its sources of advanced weaponry, the reality is Russian equipment is tried and true, very cost effective, and the Vietnamese have long trained on it. Most importantly, the Russians transfer a lot of technology to Vietnam, which produces an array of missiles and ships under license. Vietnam’s relationship with India, also gives it access to the advanced Brahmos anti-ship missiles developed with Russia. This is an enduring strategic defense relationship.

Yet, small diplomatic rifts between Vietnam and Russia have emerged, in particular over Moscow’s support for Beijing over the South China Sea and Permanent Court of Arbitration’s forthcoming ruling. In April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented in an interview that claimants in the South China Sea dispute should resolve the matter among themselves and not attempt to internationalize the issue. Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately rebutted Lavrov by announcing that the dispute should be “settled by all countries concerned,” not simply through bilateral negotiation. Notably, Lich’s visit to Russia occurred only two weeks after this incident. It should be closely watched whether this diplomatic rift will negatively affect Moscow-Hanoi defense relationship in any way.

In sum, since the 12th Party Congress in January 2016, and the early election of key state leaders to their posts ahead of President Obama’s visit, Vietnam has continued with their defense policy: a cautious attempt to bolster defense relations with regional and extra-regional states, the gradual diversification of its arms suppliers, and partaking in joint exercises. While it has brought a lot of new equipment online, giving the country unprecedented power projection capabilities, it is yet to be seen whether they have developed a corresponding doctrine. While no one should underestimate Vietnam’s will and capability to act in self-defense, that robust strategic culture has faltered at the hands of China’s maritime-militia and Coast Guard sovereignty enforcement operations and island construction. However, as Vietnam’s capability improve, it remains cautious about provoking a harsh reaction from Beijing. Yet, at the end of the day, Hanoi’s primary concern continues to be regime survival. The government responded quickly when environmental protests went national, and the regime seems very concerned regarding its ability to control its very wired and socially active population.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.

Nguyen Nhat Anh is a student of International Political Economy at the University of Texas at Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter @anhnnguyen93.

Gepard, Molniya class warships in Cam Ranh naval base. 

Little Fallout: Vietnam’s Security Policy After the 12th Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party

By Zachary Abuza and Nguyen Nhat Anh


The recently concluded 12th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has important implications for both Vietnamese and regional security. China’s placement of the HYSY-981 oil rig in disputed waters days before the congress was another stark reminder of just how tenuous regional peace is and how quickly flareups can occur. Despite losses for the reformist and pro-western Camp of the VCP, Vietnamese defense modernization and defense diplomacy will not be adversely affected.

Our bottom line is this: Vietnam will continue with its defense modernization and it will not stop its international defense cooperation, though it is unlikely to accelerate it. While the media focused on the ascendency of the “pro-China” faction, we argue that Vietnam will continue to walk a diplomatic fine line. The party’s overwhelming concern for maintaining its monopoly of power, desire to reassert the primacy of the party, and fear of a colored revolution will lead to a focus on internal security that the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) has not had in recent years. Although Naval and Air Force modernization programs will continue, it will not be as fast as had a different leadership been selected at the Congress.

Personnel Appointments

The quinquennial leadership meeting elected a 180-member Central Committee, which in turn elected a 19-member Politburo.  Much media analysis has been too superficial focusing on how the “pro” or “anti-China” factions. No one in Vietnam is solidly “pro-China.” But there are stark differences on strategies to cope with China that are borne out in factional politics. And to be sure, conservatives do tend to believe – though they are repeatedly proven otherwise – that their historical and ideological relationship with China can help to defuse crises. 

Politburo members. From left to right: Dinh The Quynh, Tran Dai Quang, Nguyen Phu Trong, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.
Politburo members. From left to right: Dinh The Quynh, Tran Dai Quang, Nguyen Phu Trong,Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the architect of Vietnam’s entry into the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and closer ties with the West, and in particular the United States, had been the front-runner to become the VCP’s General Secretary. Dung had the most popular support, in large part due to his economic reform programs, but also because he was the only leader to stand up to China in the 2014 crisis when China placed the HYSY-981 oil rig on Vietnam’s continental shelf. His outspoken criticism of China led Dung to deepen the relationship with the United States, and he saw the TPP as a strategic tool to keep the United States engaged in the region, not a mere trade agreement.

Yet Dung was outmaneuvered by a conservative faction at the Congress. When they could not get their own man for the job, the party’s top ideologue Dinh The Huynh, they were able to pull together an “anyone but Dung” coalition, and presented incumbent Nguyen Phu Trong as the compromise candidate. Although Dung fought back from the floor of the Congress, his strategic vision for the country, which included heightened economic reform, faster privatization of state owned enterprises, and closer economic ties with the West, proved unsettling to many in the leadership that prefer a cautious economic approach and a more balanced foreign policy.

Nguyen Phu Trong may be ideologically closer to China, but there is no doubt that he evolved significantly since 2012, endorsing the TPP and making a historically unprecedented trip to the United States in July 2015, where he met with President Obama in the Oval Office.  But he has also tried to diffuse tensions with China, focusing on a shared history and socialist solidarity. Had Dung won, one could have expected a more confrontational foreign policy towards China, deepened ties and greater security cooperation with the United States and other regional partners. But what he accomplished is unlikely to be reversed by the new leadership which has already pledged to continue economic reforms.

The composition of the Politburo really represents the two inter-connected goals of the VCP: To maintain its monopoly of power while growing the economy. While there are an unprecedented number of economic technocrats on the Politburo, political control is clearly a priority. To that end, the Politburo includes four people with Ministry of Public Security/police backgrounds.  

Even more troubling, the incoming Minister of National Defense General Ngo Xuan Lich, is a career political commissar who has never had command or operational experience. A political commissar is important when it comes to fighting “people’s war,” but the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) has undergone a fundamental transformation in the past decade and now fields arguably the most offensively capable military in Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s navy is now one of the most modern and capable in the region. 

Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich, incoming Minister of National Defense.
Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich, incoming Minister of National Defense.

And of great concern is that Gen Do Ba Ty, the Deputy Minister of Defense and VPA’s Chief-of-Staff, who has overseen much of that modernization, got passed over by a political commissar. Ty was seen as being too close to Prime Minister Dung.

In addition, one of the three members of the VCP’s Secretariat, the office responsible for running the day to day affairs of the VCP, is also a former VPA political commissar. The other two Secretariat members both have their origins in the Ministry of Public Security.

One cannot look at the composition of the leadership and not come to the conclusion that maintaining the political loyalty of the military and police remains a paramount concern. The leadership was alarmed when in 2014, a petition by former officers called for a re-writing of the constitution to make the VPA legally bound to defend the country, not the party. Such calls have been amplified in Vietnam’s surprisingly open social media. Tensions with China in 2014-15 led to greater public discussion as to why the VPA’s primary responsibility was to defend the regime, not the country, in the face of heightened Chinese aggression. 

But it also reflects the leadership’s ongoing fear of “colored revolutions.” The heavy commissar representation suggests that the leadership remains prepared to use the VPA for internal security operations should the need ever arise.

Nonetheless, even though there is a heavy commissar representation in the Politburo and the Secretariat, the majority of military officers, including Do Ba Ty, recently elected to the 12th Central Committee come from either the General Staff or from one of Vietnam’s eight military districts.  

The VPA holds 22 seats on the Central Committee (12.2 percent), making it the third largest sectoral block, following provincial representation (28.3 percent) and central government representation (20 percent).

The VPA’s 22 member representation includes five political commissars. That is the same number as in the 11th Congress, though the difference is that this also includes the incoming Minister of National Defense. The other four include two vice chiefs of the Political Directorate and the political commissars of Military Districts 5 and 9.

Other VPA members of the Central Committee include the commanders of Military Districts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7, as well as the commanders of the People’s Navy, People’s Air Force and the Border Guards.

There are four members from the General Staff. Another three hold the rank of Deputy Minister: one comes from the military intelligence, one from the Border Guards and one from Military District 7. 

The final two members are the deputy head of the National Defense University and the General Director of Viettel, the country’s military-owned and largest telecommunications firm, which the military has staunchly resisted divesting; ostensibly because it produces communication equipment for the military and the intelligence’s gathering functions, but also because it is greatly profitable.

It is not all bad. As mentioned above, the Politburo includes a number of technocrats who will continue to steer Vietnam towards TPP compliance, reform and privatization of the state owned sector. 

The 12th Central Committee also includes three highly skilled and US educated diplomats, who have been architects of closer ties with the US, Japan and other countries in the region. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh has been outspokenly critical of China, and Beijing is most certainly unhappy to see him finally elevated to the top decision making body. He favors a closer relationship with the West and away from China, and one can reasonably expect that Vietnam’s current trend of inching toward the West will not be stopped.  Two of his deputies are also on the Central Committee, and both are firm proponents of deeper integration with the West and a more proactive role for the United States in regional security.

It is also important to note that Sr. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh remains on the Central Committee and will stay on as Deputy Minister of National Defense. Vinh, who has an intelligence back ground, is arguably the country’s most important strategist and has been the leading driver of military relations with the United States, Japan, India, Israel and other countries in the region.

All military and state appointments will be ratified in May when the National Assembly convenes. And even within the top echelons of the VCP, personnel appointments were still being made a week after the Congress concluded.

Policy Implications

The 12th Congress will not lead to substantial changes in Vietnamese foreign policy or defense relations. 

In his speech to the 12th Congress, Gen Lich stated that he would remain committed to defense modernization, territorial defense and international military cooperation. But these were giveaways, and he really provided no detail of the country’s evolving security strategy. There is ample concern whether the appointment of a career commissar will slow the military’s modernization efforts. 

The VPA will draft a new White Paper later this year and we do not know what shape it will take with the new leadership. But we see no meaningful shift in its “Three No’s Policy”, as iterated in the last White Paper:

  • No foreign alliances,
  • No foreign military bases, and
  • No ganging up with one country against a third.

But Vietnam was already creatively working around some of them by 2015. 

The 2011 MOU signed with the US Department of Defense has been gradually implemented as trust has been built. Although the United States remains only able to have one port visit a year, that does not include CARAT and other naval exercises or HADR operations. 

And while Hanoi will never allow a foreign military base in its deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay, in mid-2015, it announced that it would be an open port that any country could use for resupply and repairs. Japan has already entered into negotiations and the United States, too, has expressed interest. In fact, the United States has already sent several ships, albeit auxiliary vessels, into Cam Ranh Bay for repair and resupply.

Vietnam and the US have increased military cooperation. In May 2015, Vietnam participated in the US Pacific Command (PACOM) Amphibious Leaders Symposium (PALS) together with other Asia-Pacific countries, though not China. PALS seeks to develop amphibious operations, capability development,interoperability, and builds on areas of previous cooperation such as HADR missions and peace keeping operations.

Vietnam and the US are proceeding with their annual defense Bilateral Defense Dialogue/Mid-Term Review in February 2016. No changes are expected due to the 12th Congress. And Vietnam was a key beneficiary of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, announced in mid 2015.  Under this agreement, Vietnam is to receive $122 million in assistance in order to help “bolster its maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control within Vietnam’s maritime agencies.”

And already the defense relationship seems like it will remain on a very solid footing. On 30 January, the USS Curtis Wilbur entered within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Archipelago, which China forcibly seized from Vietnam in 1977. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately stated that Vietnam supported the right to innocent passage, as long as they follow international rules. This is contrary to the last US FONOP on 26 October 2015 in the Spratly Islands, when Vietnam remained officially silent, though privately supporting the FONOP.

In sum, despite changes in the leadership, proponents of deeper ties with the Unites States, in particular Sr. Lt Gen Vinh and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh are in very strong positions. The trend of improved ties and greater bilateral defense cooperation with the United States is likely to continue, and it certainly will not be reversed or stopped abruptly. Even Trong has changed since taking power in 2012, as seen from his trip to the US in 2015 and the approval of TPP from the Politburo.  Vietnam is determined to continue senior level engagement, including participating at the US-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands 15-16 February 2015, as well as potentially hosting President Obama in May 2016.

Vietnam will continue to develop its “omni-directional” foreign policy. Vietnam has developed very close security ties with India, most recently announcing that it will establish a ground station for Indian satellites, giving Hanoi access to geo-spacial intelligence over the South China Sea.  India has been training Vietnamese crews for its six new Kilo-class submarines. India has emerged as a key exporter of weaponry to Vietnam, and is increasingly maintaining a greater naval presence in the South China Sea. Hanoi is dispatching a naval vessel to India’s fleet review, the longest deployment in Vietnamese naval history.

Vietnam has also worked towards interoperability with other ASEAN members, many of whom use US-made weapons. Last year, Vietnam paid port visits to the Philippines and Indonesia. It is likely to continue to participate in regional multilateral exercises.

The 12th Congress did re-emphasize relations with Vietnam’s two neighbors, Laos and Cambodia, though for different reasons. Laos is the current chairman of ASEAN, and as such it is already being courted by all sides involved in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese leadership was clearly bolstered by the results of the 10th Congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, in January 2016, which saw the pro-Hanoi Bounnhang Vorachit elected as the new secretary-general. Vorachit has rained concern about Chinese domination of Laos, and has looked to reverse the swing towards China since Beijing bailed out the Lao kip in the 1997-98 financial crisis. Already, US Secretary of State has won a pledge from the new Lao leadership to use its position to counter Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Vietnam, too, will court Laos, not least by increased military delegations.

Cambodia remains a more difficult case for Hanoi. The Cambodian foreign minister told Secretary Kerry that Cambodia’s position on the South China Sea is unchanged. Hanoi must expect Phnom Penh to continue to obstruct ASEAN unity over the South China Sea.  However, with the simmering unrest along the border in summer 2015, Vietnam cannot afford to pay no attention to Cambodia. And as the 2018 general election nears, it is highly likely that bilateral tensions will increase, as all sides in Cambodian politics engage in populist politics, xenophobic nationalism, and scapegoating of the country’s Vietnamese community. 

This may explain that of the 22 military officers on the Central Committee, two come from the Border Guards, as well as the commander of the Military District 7 and the military Commissar of Military District 9, both of which abut Cambodia. Two other senior officers on the general Staff have long experience in these two military districts, as well. On the last Central Committee, only two military personnel had experience along the Cambodian border. 

There is one area where the appointment of Trong over Dung may see a discernible difference in policy: In mid-2014, Vietnam seemed on the verge of joining the Philippine suit at the International Court of Arbitration (ICA). Top leaders, including the Prime Minister, suggested that it was a less a matter of if, but when. Yet the high level visit of the Chinese State Counselor Yang Jiechi who told Hanoi to “stop hyping up” the dispute, and implicit threats led Hanoi to drop their filing. 

In December 2014, Hanoi did file a position paper with the ICA asking that they take Vietnam’s interests into consideration in their ruling. When in October 2015, the ICA rejected China’s contention that the court had no standing and would proceed with the merits of the case, the leadership in Hanoi must have been kicking themselves. Under the leadership of Nguyen Tan Dung, one could have countenanced Vietnam filing a similar suit. But that seems unlikely under the continued leadership of Nguyen Phu Trong, who is unlikely to openly provoke China. And that is truly a setback because it is the legal weakness of Beijing’s claims that gives Hanoi the greatest leverage.

Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea will remain Hanoi’s greatest strategic conundrum. That does not change with the Congress or the election of people Beijing preferred to see in office. Vietnam’s’s border forces reported increased Chinese aggression, including 57 intrusions by boats conducting espionage in 2015 alone.

The irony is that the more conservative members of the leadership always believe that they can use their historical and ideological ties to China to diffuse situations. And yet, they have never been able to get China to reverse course or abandon its aggressive strategies, whether it be putting oil concessions on Vietnam’s continental shelf for tender, placing oil rigs in Vietnamese claimed waters or the construction of artificial islands on low tide elevations. The reality is the leadership selection could actually embolden China to step up its assertive action, knowing too well that the current leadership is less willing to engage the United States and provoke an open confrontation with Beijing.


But the real policy implication of the 12th Congress is this: Vietnamese defense modernization is contingent on sustained economic growth. While the leadership has tried to assuage the international community that economic reforms will continue, most believe that such reforms would be accelerated had Dung won.  Vietnam’s military spending increased by 270 percent between 2004 and 2013. Defense spacing accounted for 2.3 percent of GDP in 2013, third in the region behind Myanmar and Singapore. Defense expenditures averaged 2.27 percent between 2004-13. But in terms of per capita military spending Vietnam ranks fourth in the region – a mere $37.6 – placing it behind Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Vietnamese security is highly contingent on maintaining the highest rates of economic growth in Southeast Asia, which it was able to do in 2013-15, but requires skilled leadership and good policies. 

But not all signs are good. The low price of oil, now only contributes 7 percent of the budget, adding to a widening deficit, while the trade deficit and public debt are both increasing. Although the economic reform program is unlikely to be reversed, the cautious leadership of Trong will be unable to seize a window of opportunity availed by Thailand’s continued political stasis and resulting economic meltdown, Indonesia’s economic nationalism and endemic corruption, and Malaysia’s self-inflicted wounds owing to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s scandal plagued administration.


So what does all this mean for the VPA’s defense procurement program? Despite the signs that the leadership is looking to maintain party control over the security sectors, this by no means means that there is going to be any reversal of its military modernization program. Vietnam remains committed to field the most modern and lethal military in Southeast Asia. In terms of procurement, Vietnam has done a lot to diversify its weapon sources, and this trend is unlikely to be reversed with the new leadership.

In the past decade, the lion’s share of modernization funds has gone to building up power projection capabilities. The VPA has gotten slightly smaller, and its procurements have been more modest, particularly in small arms. The VPA is looking for contenders to replace its 1960s T-54/55, or to at least upgrade them to a more capable version.

Its defense partnership with Israel is still likely to deepen, far more than people are probably aware of.  Vietnam has been producing Israeli small arms under license, and is now producing an Israeli variant drone. Vietnam has also acquired Israeli Spyder AA missile and Accular guided artillery missile, and there are reasons to believe that Vietnam also wants to self-produce these weapon systems.

Other weapon systems from non-traditional suppliers include CAESAR self-propelled artillery system from France and patrol boats given by Japan.

Apart from the training of submariners in Indian bases, India has recently become a more important arms supplier to Vietnam. In 2014, Vietnam began negotiating the purchase of BrahMos anti-ship missile, co-developed by Russia and India. Vietnam has already been deemed one of the countries friendly enough to India and Russia to possess this weapon; and in mid 2015 reports surfaced that Russia had approved the sale. Also in 2014, India announced that it would extend a $100 million credit line to Vietnam for the purchase of four patrol boats.

Vietnam will take delivery of two more Gepard-class frigates from Russia in 2017-2018, and is negotiating two more. Vietnam has built six Molniya-class corvettes recently for the Navy and expects to build four more under license.

Gepard class frigate.

Outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is still pushing forward with his privatization agenda in his final four months in office. On 3 February, the government announced that it had sold a 70 percent share of Song Cam shipyard to Dutch shipbuilder Damen.  Song Cam is the most modern and profitable of the eight subsidiaries of the Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. It produces most of Vietnam’s coast guard vessels and is expected to ramp up production.

As of now, five out of six Russian-built Kilo class submarines ordered by Vietnam have arrived at the Cam Ranh naval base. The first began patrols in the South China Sea in December 2015. Not only has Vietnam acquired these state-of-the-art vessels for its deterrence, but it has also equipped them with offensive capability by being the first country in South East Asia to purchase submarine-launched land cruise missile, the Klub-S. This is the export version of the cruise missile Russia used to bombard ISIS force from the Caspian Sea, launched from Gepard class frigates, which Vietnam possesses. Russia has offered to sell the Klub for Vietnam to equip its Gepard and Molniya vessels, but no official news has been confirmed. Nevertheless, fielding silent submarines with anti-shore cruise missile will surely alter China’s calculation.

Military personnel stand on Russian-made Kilo-class submarines during a celebration of Vietnam's Navy at Cam Ranh military port May 2, 2015. Photo taken May 2, 2015. Reuters Vietnam.
Military personnel stand on Russian-made Kilo-class submarines during a celebration of Vietnam’s Navy at Cam Ranh military port May 2, 2015. Photo taken May 2, 2015. Reuters Vietnam.

Vietnam is in the market to purchase new jet fighter to replace its aging fleet of 144 Mig-21s and 38 SU-22s.  While there was plenty of speculation that with the lifting of the US embargo, that Vietnam was in the market for US jets, that was unlikely then, and even more so following the 12th Congress.

Vietnam will most likely remain within the Russian orbit of weaponry. It recently purchased another squadron of Russian Sukhoi Su-30s, and there are hints that Hanoi may consider the Eurofighter Typhoon or Gripen JAS-39E jet fighter in a bid to diversify is sources of advanced weapons.

While many in the VPA have been pushing for the purchase of American P8s to bolster its limited maritime surveillance capabilities, the potential backlash from China could result in the purchase of a European variant or even the new Kawasaki P-1 from Japan, as it begins to enter into the global arms global. In 2014, Vietnam purchased maritime surveillance planes from Canada and several Casa C-295 military cargo planes from EADS.

Vietnam has largely pushed for the lifting of the US arms embargo as a matter of principle. While they may purchase niche items that are not available from their traditional suppliers, in particular long range maritime surveillance craft, it is unlikely that there will be a broader based shift to US arms; they are simply too expensive.

Apart from acquiring weapons from abroad, Vietnam has had a strong emphasis on self-producing many of its need. As a result of this focus, Vietnam has been more successful than most countries in acquiring licensing for indigenous manufacture, and has shown that it is ready to move to another non-traditional supplier to achieve this. Indeed, the reason that Vietnam chose Israeli Military Industry Galil ACE family over the traditional Russian Kalashnikov weapons is because it was able to obtain production license for this family. Vietnam has also been able to self-manufacture other type of infantry weapons, such as RPG or automatic grenade launchers.

More special for the Vietnamese Military Industry in 2015, it has succeeded in manufacturing its indigenous version of the Russian Kh-35E Uran anti-ship missile, called KCT-15. The Kh-35 Uran is the mainstay of the Vietnamese Navy, being equipped on all Gepard and Molniya frigates. The KCT-15 can be configured to be carried by fighter jets or naval helicopters that Vietnam currently fields. An anti-ground capable Kh-35 version has also been proposed; if this materializes, it would be a much cheaper option to the expensive Klub-S cruise missile.

An indigenously produced Kh-35E Uran (KCT-15) anti-ship missile, the mainstay of the Vietnamese navy.

 Vietnam has also progressed silently but surely in the field of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), especially in satellite and UAV surveillance.  In addition to the satellite agreement with India, Vietnam has developed and operated several satellites with US Lockheed Martin and French SAS Atrium, and aims to be able to produce its own indigenous satellite in the next few years. Vietnam is also leasing a Heron UAV from Israel. Viettel Corporation, the VPA-owned telecommunication company, has produced small UAVs itself and is aiming to produce a  high altitude long endurance drone with Belorussian cooperation. The UAV HS-6L, unveiled in December 2015, has an endurance of 35 hours and a range of 4,000km and will greatly increase Vietnam ISR capability over the South China Sea. Viettel produces warning radars to support anti-air missile batteries and recently developed a new C4ISR system for the VPA.

 The first time inclusion of Viettel’s Director on the Central Committee may signify both a focus on indigenous production as well as cybersecurity and monitoring.

In general, Vietnam will continue to diversify its weapon sources, and try to improve its self-production capability. Very quietly, Vietnam has emerged as the leading producer of advanced arms in Southeast Asia.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza

Nguyen Nhat Anh is a student of International Political Economy at the University of Texas at Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter @anhnnguyen93.