Last November, the Coast Guard Journal was launched in Hanoi, providing a forum for officials and scholars to exchange their ideas on the future operation and administration of the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG). This journal has also become the first channel in Vietnam where academic writings from researchers both inside and outside the ranks of the VCG could be widely published and discussed. The birth of the Coast Guard Journal was a new step in an attempt to build up a “revolutionary, professional and modern” VCG.
This was also an indicator of the rising importance of the VCG in Vietnam’s overall maritime strategy. The VCG is the youngest branch of the Vietnam’s People Army (VPA), and was first set up as the Vietnam Marine Police on March 28, 1998. The VCG, which falls under the direct management of the Ministry of National Defense, plays an important role in maintaining security and stability in the vast exclusive economic zone and continental shelf boundary areas of the country.
The VCG has risen from difficult early days to a much-improved—and larger—force. Since 2010, an increasing amount of resources have strengthened the VCG to face increasing Chinese assertiveness in Vietnamese waters and Beijing’s strategy of using “white hull” or coast-guard-type vessels to enable the spread of its fishing fleets. The same year also marked the beginning of a new wave of China’s intrusion into the waters claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea, through clashes with Vietnamese law enforcement agencies or harassing Vietnamese fishermen. Additionally, non-traditional security issues like piracy and other transnational maritime crimes require the presence of a robust, effective and modern VCG in Vietnam’s coastal waters.
The first obstacle is a lack of a comprehensive cooperation framework between the VCG and VPN, especially in emergencies that require immediate coordination. At the moment, both the VCG and VPN have their own command and control structures under different lines of communication.
Second, the VCG has in its service mostly smaller and less-capable vessels than its naval counterpart, which in turn reduces their effectiveness and desire to cooperate. Current operational and tactical missions of the VCG have already been overwhelming for the smaller force, and joint missions add to the burden. The VCG also suffers from a lack of clarity over the exact obligations that the different bodies have in war and peacetime. The friction resulting from competitive interactions or overlapping obligations could reduce the overall capabilities of the two and therefore result in “gray zone” conflicts involving political and legal issues.
Small navies, similar to other naval powers, obviously require a comprehensive and effective strategy to deal with numerous challenges in a constantly changing maritime environment. This strategy has to cover both operational and tactical issues as well as administration and coordination tasks with other maritime agencies in order to increase overall constabulary capabilities. These are all essential questions that need careful consideration by Vietnamese maritime strategists.
AMTI / CSIS