Why Vietnam shouldn’t go nuclear – The Diplomat

Defense Asia | Security | South East Asia

Pursuing a nuclear deterrent against Chinese aggression would undermine the country’s international reputation and destabilize relations with Beijing.

Since the end of the Cold War, Vietnam has been in a precarious position, with Chinese threats increasing both on land and at sea. At constant perimeter, Vietnam is unlikely to match Chinese military power. Thus, it is natural that some researchers have suggested that Vietnam pursue nuclear weapons in order to counterbalance China. Nuclear weapons are a great equalizer for weak states vis-à-vis strong states, and would allow Vietnam to deter Chinese aggression once it can no longer engage in a conventional arms race with China.

However, while this argument seems logical, it overlooks the history of how Vietnam viewed the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy, particularly in its relationship with China. Vietnam had the nuclear option in the late 1970s and 1980s under its Alliance with the Soviet Union, during which the Soviets gave Vietnam nuclear-capable missiles, but not nuclear warheads themselves. But the Soviet Union could have provided Vietnam with the warheads if it decided and if Vietnam accepted them. Moscow itself built shelters for its nuclear submarines in Cam Ranh Bay, which it relied on to patrol the South China Sea. In the end, Vietnam opted against hosting Soviet nuclear warheads for one simple reason: he didn’t want to hurt his relationship with China at a time when the two countries were normalizing diplomatic relations in the late 1980s.

To justify not harboring nuclear weapons, Vietnam reviewed the 1978 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union and argued that the treaty contained no clause stating that Moscow would be allowed to station warheads. nuclear weapons in Cam Ranh Bay. It should also be remembered that the Soviet Union-Vietnam alliance had lost some cohesion since the mid-1980s due to Soviet economic decline and its own efforts to normalize relations with China. If Vietnam had favored nuclear weapons to deter China at all costs, it should have accepted those weapons when its economy was no longer able to sustain a million-strong conventional army. Vietnam’s decision not to go nuclear was vital to its normalization of diplomatic relations with China in 1991.

After its refusal to harbor Soviet nuclear weapons and the substantial Soviet withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam joined the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty in 1995, under which the signatories pledged not to “develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons; station or transport nuclear weapons by any means; or test or use nuclear weapons. The reason for its accession to the treaty was strategic – he hoped the treaty would limit Chinese military options in the region. Vietnam subsequently acceded to and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and 2006, respectively, which affirmed The Hanoi commitment to non-proliferation. Vietnam also has has been member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1982. It is no exaggeration to say that Vietnam’s decision not to host Soviet nuclear weapons and to participate in the Southeast Asian Nuclear Free Zone was essential reintegration into the international community, a step that North Korea has not yet taken.

In this context, Vietnam’s nuclear switchover would fundamentally destroy Hanoi’s post-Cold War foreign policy of diversification and multilateralization. The pursuit of nuclear weapons would immediately tarnish the export-led growth strategy due to the international sanctions that would likely result, and lower its international status to that of a pariah like North Korea. It would also hurt Hanoi’s legal challenges against Chinese activities in the South China Sea, as Vietnam would also break its commitment to multiple international treaties at once. Needs these treaties to be most on his side. And these scenarios are not fanciful. Vietnam was indeed a pariah just 40 years ago when it considered hosting Soviet nuclear weapons.

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Moreover, it is not clear whether having nuclear weapons would increase Vietnam’s security. Vietnam should never antagonize China because its security and prosperity depend on a good Vietnam-China relationship. For Vietnam, going nuclear would be a matter of self-defense; but for China it would be a strong signal that Vietnam harbors aggressive intentions. Nuclear weapons are only a cause of stability when both states have a secure second-strike capability, which Vietnam would not have until long after it decided to go nuclear. China would be not reluctant to conduct surgical strikes against Vietnam to rid it of its nascent nuclear program and prevent Vietnam from having a second-strike capability, like Israel did in Syria in 2007.

It is important to note that while Vietnam successfully obtains a second strike capability at high cost, it is also uncertain whether it could maintain this capability in the long term given its weaker economic and technological base. China can still pull off a splendid first strike because its missiles are more accurate and numerous, and they are backed by superior surveillance capability. To protect its second-strike capability, China has managed its nuclear arsenal for at least 50 years while Vietnam has no experience of managing a single one, which would also increase the accident risk if ever Vietnam decided to go nuclear. This is to counter the argument that having a nuclear arsenal could even out the huge power disparity between Vietnam and China and free Vietnam from a conventional arms race with China.

Even assuming the unlikely scenario that Vietnam has the ability to maintain its second-strike capability, it is not credible for Vietnam to deter Chinese aggression on the South China Sea with nuclear weapons. Indeed, these islands lack strategic importance for the survival of Vietnam and the attacks of China against the islands of Vietnam are likely to fall below the threshold that would justify a nuclear attack. And even if China were to launch a ground invasion of Vietnam, Hanoi would still be able to repel it and credibly signal to China without the need for nuclear weapons, much like it did in 1979. , nuclear weapons would be both useless and harmful to Vietnam.

Vietnam wanna “be friends with all countries and never upset anyone.” For such a policy to work, a commitment to nuclear non-proliferation is a necessity. Vietnam said no to nuclear weapons in the 1980s when it was in a worse position than it is now; as such, it can and should do so again.