Cold War movie

Vietnam set to buy 6 Russian submarines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2009, 12:00am

Vietnam is reportedly close to finalising a US$1.8 billion deal with Russia to buy six Kilo-class submarines - a move that could carry sweeping implications for regional security.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted a report in the Russian business daily Kommersant that the deal to deliver six of the diesel-electric submarines to the Vietnamese navy had been under discussion for a year and would soon be completed. If finalised, the deal would complete a two-decade effort by Hanoi to obtain Kilos - one of the stealthiest submarines available - to better protect its South China Sea claims from China's naval build-up, regional military analysts and diplomatic sources said.

'If this takes place as reported it will be a very significant development for everything that is going on in the South China Sea,' Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam military watcher with the Australian Defence Force Academy, said.

'It is further evidence that Vietnam is determined to create a viable deterrent to China in the South China Sea, whatever Beijing's intentions are ... Vietnam knows it could never match China but it could at least make any conflict over disputes a very complex proposition.'

Neither Hanoi nor Moscow has yet to formally comment.

Equipped with missiles, the Kilo is designed for anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare as well as the surveillance and penetration missions that make submarines so sought after by regional militaries. They will join an expanding fleet of Russian-designed Tarantul missile corvettes and frigates operated by Vietnam, as well as SU-27 jet fighters.

China has purchased its own Kilos from Russia in the past and is also developing its own long-range nuclear powered submarines, some of which will be based in a state-of-the-art facility recently completed in southern Hainan .

The base, along with China's general naval build-up, has alarmed Vietnamese military planners and inflamed long-simmering suspicions, several diplomatic sources said. While the two Communist Party-ruled governments have worked to foster closer ties in recent years and struck agreements over the land border and Tonkin Gulf, the rest of the South China Sea remains in dispute.

China occupies the Paracel archipelago, having driven off the then-South Vietnamese navy as that nation collapsed in 1974.

Vietnamese forces now occupy more than 20 bases in the Spratly grouping to the south, far more than any other claimant, including China.

Both island groupings straddle vital shipping lanes and a seabed potentially rich in oil and gas.

Beijing and Hanoi, along with Taipei, are the only governments to claim both groupings in their entirety.

China has oilfields in the north while Vietnam is actively developing fields in the centre and south.

Chinese diplomats last year warned executives of the world's largest oil firm, ExxonMobil, that it should pull out of an oil exploration deal with Vietnam or risk hurting its mainland interests.

'Whenever we talk privately with Vietnamese military officials it is all China, China, China,' said one well-placed western diplomat. 'They are determined to protect what they see as their maritime sovereignty and this deal highlights that.'

Professor Thayer said Hanoi's desire to obtain Kilos dated to before 1991. At the time, they were in talks with their cold war ally, the Soviet Union, which collapsed before a deal could be done. More recently, Vietnamese naval chiefs had been seeking second-hand Kilos from Serbia.

Hanoi acquired two mini-submarines from North Korea in 1997, allowing a development programme to start in earnest. The Indian military, meanwhile, has helped with training and visits to its bases.

'The Russians may sell the subs, but it is the Indians that are helping teach the doctrine and expertise. It has every interest in keeping China occupied in that part of Asia,' Professor Thayer said.