Members of London’s Diplomatic Corps will gather to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) on December 9th at the prestigious Army and Navy Club. The annual ceremony, held in Vietnam on December 22nd, commemorates the founding of the VPA in 1944 to combat the Japanese occupation and French colonialism. Founded by soon-to-be president, Ho Chi Minh, and commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap, noted Vietnamese military strategist, the original force numbered just 34 personnel and was known as the Armed Propaganda Unit. Today, Vietnam has 450,000 personnel under arms and a 5,000,000 reserve. Although Vietnam considers itself a secure country with no need for a large army, two-year conscription still exists for young men between 18 and 24 (women join voluntarily, mainly in information and logistics units) but only 20% of the age group are actually conscripts.
The army has played an important role in Vietnam’s independence. The victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to the Geneva Convention ensuring Vietnam’s independence, and the withdrawal of the US from Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975 allowed the re-unification of North and South Vietnam.
Right from the start, the VPA was unusual in making a strong social dimension part of its operations. As Senior Colonel Vo Van Thanh, Defence Attaché at the Vietnamese Embassy in London, described it, “The most important task of the VPA was helping the public in humanitarian disasters, such as flooding, typhoon damage and earthquakes.” As well as its civilian support operations, the VPA also set up a range of companies, organised by the Ministry of Defence and specialising in building factories and manufacturing products in geographical areas of the country where civilian companies were reluctant to invest.
Now Vietnam is internationalising its humanitarian operations, working with the United Nations Peacekeeping force to mount operations in Sudan in hospitals and communications. The first attachment was in South Sudan in 2015 but the operation is scheduled to expand to other areas as required. Essentially, the move is to use Vietnam’s resources to provide humanitarian and logistic support, not combat troops.
“Vietnam is growing,” said Colonel Thanh, “and we want to play a bigger role on the international scene. That’s why we want to contribute more to United Nations missions. We took over a level-2 field hospital in South Sudan, set up by the UK, and we got a lot of support from the UK Ministry of Defence.” “We hope to expand by deploying engineering units in South Sudan in 2020,” he added.
For the military in emerging economies, contributing to international peacekeeping missions will be an increasingly important way of building an international reputation, he explained.
A long coastline facing the South China Sea (known in Vietnam as the East Sea) means that the navy and the relatively new coastguard are the fastest developing part of the Vietnamese military, monitoring traffic in Vietnamese territorial waters, helping boats in distress, and stopping terrorists and smugglers. The East Sea is an important waterway for international cargo and important for the protection of the region.
The VPA Day is not just a day for military parades but also for all Vietnamese. Since 1989 the date has been adopted nationwide to be the All-People’s Defence Day. For the past thirty years it has been a festival celebrating the tradition of nation-building and defence with dances, meetings, seminars, and arts performances as well as military parades.
All regions of the world experience tensions. Last week London hosted the Nato military alliance conference. Recently, Nato has come in for a lot of criticism, particularly from French President Emmanuel Macron, who described Nato as “brain dead”. Is there room for military alliances such as Nato anymore, 7Dnews asked Colonel Thanh.
The colonel responded, “The cold war divided countries into two groups very clearly and Nato was very important for safeguarding the security of all western countries. That’s why at the time Nato was more united and more organised and efficient. But now the world is changing. New threats are emerging everywhere. Nato needs to transform to face new challenges.”
And what about Asia? “In the 1950s we established Seato (South East Asian Treaty Organisation) but it only lasted a few years,” replied Colonel Thanh. “There are so many differences in society, politics, and religions between South East Asian states with different interests that there is no point in forming military alliances,” he added.
Nevertheless, he pointed out that the Vietnamese Ministry of Defence is the 2020 Chair of the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM+, comprising the ten Asean nations and Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the US.
Going back to military strategy, with the advent of drone weapons, will warfare itself change? “I don’t think so,” said Colonel Thanh. “Drones are very important weapons but I think that the navy, army, and air force are still very important. We have electro-magnetic weapons, laser weapons and other technologies, including drones. We are seeing the emergence of new types of warfare such as cyberwarfare and potentially space warfare. There are many new technologies available to the military but the army remains the most important. The VPA is an army of National Defence. Drones cannot replace people,” he concluded.