HANOI — Vietnam's major arms deal with Russia, reported to involve the purchase of six submarines, aims to bolster claims against China over potentially resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, analysts say.
While much of Vietnam's military hardware is antiquated, it has decided to devote substantial resources to developing an underwater fleet as concerns mount over tensions with its giant neighbour over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, they say.
"I think their primary rationale is to counteract the military build-up that the Chinese have had in the South China Sea," said Richard Bitzinger, a regional defence analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Vietnam and Russia signed the long-planned deal on Tuesday during a visit by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Moscow.
Details were not released but Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Vietnam had agreed to buy six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines for about two billion dollars.
Vietnam's move is not surprising "given the concerns they have about the maritime environment, particularly in the South China Sea," said Peter Abigail, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
In the latest incident, Vietnam on Tuesday delivered a diplomatic note to the Chinese embassy in Hanoi demanding China return two fishing boats and equipment seized from Vietnamese fishermen in waters around the Paracels.
Vietnam has previously reported similar cases, and fishermen earlier this year said they were seeing an increasing number of armed Chinese patrol ships in disputed waters.
Taiwan also claims the Paracels -- which China occupies -- while the Spratlys are claimed in full or part by China and Vietnam as well as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The sovereignty row has gone on for years. In 1988 Vietnam and China fought a brief naval battle near one of the Spratly reefs. More than 50 Vietnamese sailors died.
Two years ago a Chinese naval vessel fired at a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Spratlys, killing one sailor, reports said.
The archipelagos are considered strategic outposts with potentially vast oil and gas reserves, and rich fishing grounds.
Last week, Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam's deputy minister of defence, called the maritime tensions "a matter of concern".
That was the most forthright assessment yet by a Vietnamese defence official on the issue, said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist with the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Vinh said the issue would not lead to conflict because international law provides a basis for a resolution, and Vietnam's policy is to ensure a peaceful outcome.
But Vietnam, with a long coastline and offshore oil potential, has faced a "strategic vulnerability" which it is now trying to address, Thayer said.
In Moscow, Dung confirmed only that the arms deal included submarines along with aircraft and "military equipment".
The aircraft order involved 12 Sukhoi Su-30MK2 warplanes worth more than 500 million dollars, Russia's Vedomosti newspaper reported earlier this year.
The fighters are among the world's most advanced and could provide air cover for the surface fleet, which Vietnam is seeking to enhance with new patrol craft, analysts say.
"What they're mostly trying to do is beef up their presence," Bitzinger said.
Vietnam's submarines will help to at least give it a capability of defending its maritime interests, Thayer said.
China's modernising military has prompted concern in the United States. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said US military power in the Pacific could be undermined, and a Pentagon report said China's weaponry and aircraft could enable it to carry out extended operations into the South China Sea.
While Vietnam's prime minister was signing the deal with Russia on Tuesday, his defence minister was on a rare visit to Washington where he held talks with Gates.
A Chinese embassy official in Hanoi, when asked to comment on the submarine deal, said Vietnam, Russia, and other countries in the area "must think about peace, and peace in the South China Sea."
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