Kaalkut. Chapter 3

25 June 2019. Hanoi, Vietnam

Lai Pa island chains were a small group of 5 uninhabited reef islands roughly 45-50 km east of the Vietnamese mainland and slightly further from the Chinese coast. Of the 5 islands, 3 got submerged underwater during high tide. The biggest among them was 1.5 km in length and 800 m at its widest. All were too small to have any useful vegetation and fresh water and only fishermen used them every now and then for anchorage and shelter. Since they had no practical use and no natural resources to speak of, nobody had ever wanted to live there or ever stake a claim to any of the islands. Fishing trawlers from Vietnam and China both fished in the waters around them, but no one had had any official claim to the island chain.  

In March 2017, a policy paper published by Chinese People’s Liberation Navy called this island chain as XinaHai and explained its importance in the defence of Hainan island in case of any conflict in the South China sea. This was followed by increased movement of Chinese naval vessels and civilian ships manned by naval personnel in the area. 

Its significance was not lost on the Vietnamese who had fought a bloody war with China in 1979. It had extended on to a number of small skirmishes through most of the 1980s.  Although both sides had claimed victory, the resolution of war had resulted in the transfer of some Vietnamese territory to China in 1999.  This caused a lot of outrage in many Vietnamese circles and was considered an appeasement measure. The fact that Vietnam had already lost a similar group of islands to China in 1988 rankled Vietnamese nationalists even further. The Vietnamese government had tried to raise the issue in international forums many times but had received no favourable response.

A high ranking meeting was called in by the Vietnamese Defence Minister, Le Minh Huong to discuss the issue and formulate a strategy. Admiral Nhat Linh, head of Vietnam People’s Navy, was already talking to  Commander of 1st Regional Command, Rear Admiral Xuan Deu before the meeting started. Xuan. Deu’s fleet was responsible for the defence of northern Vietnam’s seas where Lai Pa was located. Rear Admiral Phạm Van, head of 3rd Regional Command responsible for Vietnamese seas in the middle was also a part of the discussion, but he was mostly just listening. 

Vietnam People’s Army was represented by Colonel General Doan Khuey who also served as Deputy Minister Of Defence and Major General Van Tie Tung. Lieutenant General  Nguyen Tien Sam from Air Force and his trusted Major General Vu Ngoc Đinh represented the Vietnam People’s Air Force. 

Another group of officers present in the meeting room were Political Commissars from each branch who were responsible for ensuring that the officers of armed forces implement orders from the ruling authority without any deviation. It was a practice carried forward from the Soviet era and many of these officers enjoyed the same ranks and nearly the same  privileges and perks as the regular officers. 

All these men in uniform including the Defence Minister formed the core of policy and decision makers who had near absolute authority in matters related to defence and sometimes foreign policy of Vietnam. Many of the people in the meeting room were just rising through the ranks as low to mid-level officers in the military when the 1999 treaty with China was signed. Public dissent was not tolerated in communist Vietnam and they were too low in the hierarchy to make any difference.  In private, most of them would lament the loss of face and national humiliation that the loss of territory had brought them even after claims of victory. But there was not much they could do at the time or even later. Sheer gap between military prowess of the two countries  meant that Vietnam could at best put up a good fight against China, not win a full-fledged war. 

Defence Minister Huong addressed the room, “We all have read the PLAN paper about Lai Pa and analysis of our own experts. We have our intelligence reports which provide a rough outline for the Chinese plans. They are making preparations for constructing a new military base there within the next few months.  My first question to all of you is, “What can we do about it? ”

Admiral Linh started, “Vietnam as a military force can not do much to match China. We simply don’t have the equipment, manpower, technology, size and money for it. If China plants its flag on Lai Pa as they did in the Spratly Islands in 1988, we can not do much to stop them from doing it.”

Admiral Linh was talking about a small naval conflict between Vietnam and China at Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands chain in 1988. Vietnamese forces had suffered a humiliating defeat in the short skirmish with 60 plus dead and 3 ships lost. The Chinese had taken over complete control of the uninhabited group of reef islands within one year. Many of the unarmed Vietnamese soldiers had died defending their flag on the island when Chinese forces had opened fire on them from their ships and then bayoneted the survivors. 

One of the Political Commissars, Major General Duo spoke, “I’m afraid that the Vietnamese public will not like this Comrade Admiral. Our soldiers had fought bravely, even barehanded to defend our flag. We must honour their bravery and sacrifice.”

Admiral Linh had more contempt than respect for political commissars whom he considered to be freeloading parasites with more power than responsibility. But he was pragmatic and knew when to pick up fights and when to acquiesce. He spoke in an even tone, “Our soldiers did fight honourably and to the death. But we still lost to the Chinese and we couldn’t even get our soldiers back who were taken prisoners till we signed off our northern lands to them in 1991. Chinese were twice as powerful as us back then. Now the gap is 20 times as big. I would hate to give up without a fight, but where are our resources?”

Deputy Defence Minister Doan Dung asked, “We shouldn’t be talking about military conflict as if it’s the only option we have. We should be trying for a political settlement, not preparing for another war. “

“Did the Chinese consider talks before they attacked us in 1979? We spent most of the 1980s at war with them. This conflict ended after 20 years only when we were forced to give away our lands. Chinese have only one purpose, complete supremacy over what’s around them. They don’t consider us or anyone else their equals. They’ve been grabbing territories, resources and more from everyone around them for decades. 

And what’s the guarantee that they even consider our claim as an issue? We’ve been trying for two months to get them to talk to us. All they did was to get some junior official to issue a statement about the digging of new wells for hydrocarbon exploration  in the region.” Linh retorted.

Colonel-General Doan Khuey was next, “Comrade Admiral is absolutely right. The simple facts are that the Chinese believe that there are huge deposits of gas and oil in the region and they are staking claims everywhere to control them. The biggest island in Lai Pa is not large enough for even a proper airfield, but they will make it bigger artificially. They are already doing it in 2 other islands further south, adjoining Philippines. Then they’ll bring their ships and planes and start digging their oil wells and Lai Pa will be XinaHai for all intents and purposes. Once it’s done, we’ll lose our freedom of navigation and fishing rights. They’re not stealing  just some small islands, but our energy supplies, shipping lanes, fishing grounds and freedom.”

“I agree with Comrade Colonel-General. Every single intelligence report and analysis we have confirms this plan. They have no interest in sharing resources or respecting maritime boundaries. They just want Lai Pa like hundreds of other territories under their absolute control. We’re having this meeting exactly for this reason.

How many people anywhere have studied their military doctrines as closely as we have? We all know that China wants to fight its wars away from the mainland. They think that fighting a war on their borders doesn’t work anymore. All these island occupations in the South China sea and their eastern borders, new so-called civilian ports in multiple countries,  are all a part of their new expansionist doctrine. They are expanding their territory to ensure that the next war they fight is far from the Chinese mainland where most of their economic power resides. They’ll not stop doing this till we make them realise that neither they can grab territories wherever they please and even their land grabs will not protect Han heartland from a war.” DM Huong paused to look at everyone in the room and then continued.  “I want to know how we can protect our territory and interests against this aggression.” 

There was silence in the room for a few moments as everyone took in the words of the defence minister and then Khuey started, “I hope that you’ll all excuse me, but I’ll have to be very blunt. Going by the information and resources that we have, the best we can do is to fight a defensive war with a few attacks in limited sectors. We can bring our 1st and 2nd Corps up for the fight while keeping the rest as reserves and for the defence of the eastern front in case of a naval invasion. Our land forces can handle northern fronts easily for 3-4 months of combat. That’s assuming that our supply lines will be reliable and the effects of Chinese air or cruise missile attacks will be minimal. Even then the best outcome that we can hope for is that we may capture and hold small towns like Hepigcun, Pingxiang for a few weeks at best. But it will not be easy and we’ll suffer tens of thousands of casualties even in the best-case scenario.”

“Comrade General Khuey is right.” It was the turn of Air Force Chief Lieutenant General Nguyen Tien Sam. “But unlike the Army, Air Force will not have the luxury of keeping reserves. We’ll have to dedicate almost all our resources to the fight just to hold parity with the Chinese and even that’ll not be enough. We have some units like 923 and 950 equipped with modern Su-30 for offensive and defensive operations and a fairly good if not great ground based air defence network. We can give them a bloody nose in case of a limited conflict, but that’s about it. We need at least thrice the numbers we have now to have a fighting chance in a full-scale war or even a smaller conflict like in 1979. That’s just for the land operations. This does not include  naval support missions we’ll have to undertake in a bigger conflict.”

 That last line brought attention from all participants of the meeting to the three naval officers in the room. Admiral Linh took a deep breath and spoke, “With the air force providing top cover, we can deter Chinese ships with our new Kilo submarines and shore based batteries of anti-ship missiles etc. But that’s about most of it. The strongest surface ships in our arsenal are just frigates with not even a single functioning destroyer. 

In all of our war games, the only feasible strategy for us is to use our submarine fleet to disrupt Chinese supply lines and maybe sink some of their surface combatants as targets of opportunity. But even these submarines are limited in number and have limited range due to their diesel propulsion.  I am not a big fan of their aircraft carriers as of now, but they are gaining experience fast. Even with the poor quality of their aircraft carriers, their surface fleet is a lot stronger than we are or can hope to be with the budget we have.”

Huong didn’t seem happy, “I think all of us know that a country of our size can not hope to match China militarily. The best we can do is to deter them. Can anyone suggest any ideas about how to do this? All we need to do is to get the Chinese to leave us alone.”

There were hushed conversations all over the room, but no clear reply to the minister’s question. Rear Admiral Van looked at the Admiral and got a nod. “If I may, Comrade Minister?” He paused for a moment to look at the participants around him and then spoke, quietly but firmly,

“It is quite obvious that Vietnam can not stop China from taking control of Lai Pa by either force or diplomacy. At this point, if we want to stop China from occupying them, a military conflict is probably the only choice we have. But even the best outcome for us will result in a long and painful war that will drag on for years and shatter our economy. China can absorb almost any economic and military damage that we may inflict and still stay strong.

 But we can’t let them take control of islands because that’ll damage our economy and our sovereignty too. At this point, I can only suggest that we form a military alliance with some other like-minded nations and present a united front against Chinese hegemony. ” 

Deputy DM Dung objected, “I must say that it’s not really a terrible idea Comrade Admiral. But why do you think that any of these countries will come to our aid on this issue?  Chinese are just too strong and their opposition is too scattered and divided to challenge them in any way. We have tried raising this issue in the UN and every international forum we could, but not one country offered any real help except verbal criticism of Chinese policies in the region. We had a defence pact with the USSR and they sat out all of the war when the Chinese attacked us. Which country can aid us even if they want to?”

“That’s true. Van conceded. “But a multi-national alliance is our only real hope. I am not saying that this can be done in a few weeks or even months or even my area of expertise. This is a job for skilled diplomats experienced in such stuff. As of now, no country will risk angering China due to economic and military reasons. Even disruption of trade with China will cause serious problems with most countries in the world. But at the same time, Vietnam can’t let the Chinese take control of Lai Pa.

Khuey came to Van’s support, “I think I support what Comrade Rear Admiral is suggesting. Look at it objectively, tell me one country except for North Korea and Pakistan which will support China in case of a conflict. They have territorial, political, economic disputes with every single country around them. Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, India, Taiwan, USA; not a single one of them will be unhappy to see them lose.”

“Alright, so let us work on this assumption that every single country mentioned is unfriendly towards China,” Duong spoke after thinking for a minute.. “All we need to know is how this antipathy against China can be used to defend Vietnam. I think Comrade Vice Admiral Van and Comrade Major General Khuey are suggesting an international military alliance of some sort, right? How do you think that such an alliance will be made and can it be done before the Chinese make a move?

Japan and USA have been trying to formulate such alliances and strategies for many years now without any success to speak of. What resources or leverage do we have to make such a successful alliance possible when even they have failed.” 

Khuey opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by Defence Minister. “All of these are very valid points and I thank everyone present here for their inputs. I don’t think that we’ll be able to formulate a valid strategy just yet. We need more time, information and approval from Prime Minister for any such strategic plan. I am meeting him and Foreign Minister tomorrow morning and depending upon our discussions, my office will call for and arrange another meeting in the coming week. 

Thank you all once again for your time.”

There were some people in the room who were a bit surprised by the abrupt end of the meeting. But they thought better of extending the meeting longer than what the minister wished for.

Few Days Later

Rear Admiral Van had just settled into his office when he got a call from the Defence Minister’s office inviting him for a face to face meeting with the minister himself. He had no idea about what to expect and waited nervously at the reception waiting for his invitation to go in. 

After a short wait, he was ushered into the minister’s office who greeted him warmly. Van relaxed after seeing the minister’s good mood. But he paused slightly after recognising the only other person in the room. He was Major General Tạ Dình De, a brilliant officer from the General Department of Military Intelligence, commonly called TC2. He had met De 2-3 times before a few years back when he was still a Commodore and remembered his sharp intellect and ability to read people.

DM Huong got straight to the point, “Comrade Rear Admiral, I believe that you and Comrade Major General De are no strangers. So our discussions should be smooth and quick. Right?”

But before we start, do you have anything to add to what you said during our last meeting?”

After hearing Van’s no, Huong continued, “Our last meeting was interesting but we couldn’t manage to decide on a suitable course of action then. The truth of the matter is that this is a very sensitive matter and I believe that the fate of Vietnam will depend upon our actions. So such a decision can’t be taken in meetings like that. What we need to do requires absolute secrecy and only the best people on it.”

That gave Van a pause. All the people who attended had the highest security clearance and were supposed to take official secrecy very seriously. Minister’s deliberate use of “absolute secrecy”  rang a bell in his mind, but outwardly he just nodded with an unchanged expression.

“I met with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister last night and had detailed discussions about our policies from now on. You should be happy to know that they both liked your suggestions and want you to play an important role in this regard. Before we continue further, we need to know if you are willing.”

“Of Course Comrade Minister. I am always ready to serve our country in any way possible.” Van replied quickly.

Huong looked at De implying that It was his turn to speak. “Comrade Rear Admiral, do you have any idea why you were chosen out of all the people at our disposal?”

Van only had some vague thoughts, most of which he thought were embarrassing, so he just replied in negative.

De gave a slight smile, “You don’t have to be so modest Comrade. You are one of the brightest people we have and your work in the past has caught the eye of lots of important people. But I’ll not keep you guessing for long and come straight to the point. 

You’ve already worked upon that idea of an international coalition of sorts that you proposed at the meeting, right? I still remember picking your brains after you presented your policy paper on this topic back in 2012. That’s when we met first. I hope you remember our meeting.”

A long list of policy papers written by Van flashed through his mind. As a mid-ranking officer, he had written a number of papers covering topics such as asymmetric naval warfare, effects of such warfare on international relations and the gradual rise of Chinese hegemony in Vietnam’s neighbourhood. He had managed to write at least two such papers annually but had struggled to complete even one ever since he took control of the 3rd Regional Command of the Vietnamese Navy as a Rear Admiral.

RA Van smiled back, “Yes I do remember Comrade. I also remember most of the questions you asked and suggestions for further refinement to the plans which I gratefully used in the next few papers I wrote.”

De nodded, “That didn’t go unnoticed in my TC2 and quite some other relevant places in the government. As most of the events you predicted have come true, we think there is no better person to implement your ideas than you yourself. You’ll be given as many resources as we can spare. But everything has to be very low profile and should stay top secret.  You’ll not be at liberty to discuss it with anyone, even Admiral Linh.” 

The last line rang another bell in Van’s mind. The last meeting was cancelled abruptly just when the exact topic was being discussed. Now the minister had called him for yet another meeting with only the top-ranking spy in the country and they were talking about the same thing again.  Did they suspect a mole at that high level of decision-making elites of Vietnam’s regime? De stared at him intently as if reading his thoughts. 

But outwardly he remained unmoved, “Yes Comrade Major General. I understand perfectly.”

Huong handed him a paper with a list of names and contact details of a few people. “This is a list of our people who will help you in your task in different sectors. They know what they’re supposed to do but none of them should know about the existence of this list. As far as they are concerned, you’re working only with them. Try to keep it this way for as long as possible.

Some of the people on this list are our diplomats and intelligence agents in certain countries who we feel will be interested in what we have to offer. Rest are certain persons of interest who have the type of connections and resources that we need. A detailed briefing will be provided by someone from Comrade De’s office. Everything you do, you will share only with me or him. No one else needs to know anything. I can’t stress this enough.”

He paused for a minute watching Van and then said, “You might be wondering how you will do all this with the responsibilities of your command in such troubled times. Well, Comrade, you are taking a fully paid study leave for three months. Once you finish your task successfully, you’ll have your command back with a promotion and a personal commendation from the President himself. “

Van thought about it for a moment and decided that it was too good of a good deal to pass up. “Thank you for your faith in me sir. I’ll not let you down”. 

Huong stood up to shake his hand signalling the end of the meeting, “The Chinese have let the wheels in motion, but it’s us who will take control. Good luck.”

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