HANOI: Vietnam’s new Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has said the country has no intention to join a military race in the South China Sea, and will pursue peaceful means to protect its territory – without threatening others with force.
The newly-elected Vietnamese leader spoke to foreign media in a rare interview on Wednesday (May 25), two days after US President Barack Obama announced a full lifting of the US’ longstanding embargo on arms sales to Vietnam.
“Vietnam has no policy of militarisation, but we have necessary measures together with other countries, and international friends like Japan to maintain peace, freedom of navigation, over-flight and trade in the South China Sea,” Mr Phuc said in Vietnamese.
“I repeat, no conflict – to ensure peace for our people,” he stressed.
SOUTH CHINA SEA “COMPLICATED”
Mr Obama’s announcement on Monday to end a blanket ban on lethal arms sales to its former war adversary comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking to upgrade its outdated military and maritime equipment.
Vietnam was the world’s eighth-largest arms importer between 2011 and 2015, growing 699 per cent in the five-year period, according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The spike in defence spending coincided with the escalation of Vietnam’s maritime dispute with its biggest trade partner and neighbour China. Bilateral ties soured in 2014 during an oilrig spat that triggered anti-China riots across several Vietnamese provinces.
“It’s true that the recent situation in the South China Sea has been complicated,” Mr Phuc said.
The developing ASEAN nation is seen to be drumming up defence partnerships with the US and Japan to counter Chinese influence and defend its more than 3,000-kilometre coastline.
Earlier this year, Japan completed a handover of six used patrol boats to Vietnam’s coast guard and is now mulling Vietnam’s request for new boats, Japanese officials told reporters during foreign minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Hanoi in May.
“Vietnam is a country that loves peace … (it) has a multilateral and diverse foreign policy that maintains good relationships with other countries, including its 12 strategic partners like Singapore,” Mr Phuc said.
Rare interview with Vietnam’s new PM who took office in April.
Mr Phuc was appointed Prime Minister by lawmakers in April, placing him among Vietnam’s “big four” of political power headed by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.
Asked to respond to criticism that Vietnam’s conservatism and communist politics are not good for business, he defended the country’s economic performance and pointed to the slew of trade deals it has signed or will ratify, including the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“Our country is led by the Communist Party, but we follow the market economy model,” Mr Phuc said. “You can’t say Vietnam is a conservative country. A market economy must be dynamic, it cannot be conservative.”