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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

South China Sea: Vietnam Ups
Ante, Dispatches Frigate to
Vanguard Bank
Carlyle A. Thayer
August 18, 2019

Vietnam has sent one of its first Gepard 3.9-class guided missile frigates, Quang Trung,
to Vanguard Bank to prevent Chinese oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 from operating.
We request your response to the following questions:
Q1. Is the move signalling Vietnam is ready to take the risk to use its first class guided
missile frigate to counter China?
ANSWER: So far, the standoff at Vanguard Bank between China and Vietnam has been
relatively restrained compared to the events of 2014. The current standoff has
involved Coast Guard ships from both sides. Chinese ships have passed the bows of
Vietnamese ships in a dangerous manner and used high-pressure water cannons to
warn off Vietnam Coast Guard ships – but at a distance.
If the report that Vietnam has dispatched the Gepard-class frigate Quang Trung HQ
016 to Vanguard Bank is correct it means Vietnam is upping the ante and signallinmg
Vietnam's resolve to defend its sovereign rights and protect its Coast Guard ships on
station at Vanguard Bank. While the Quang Trung is primarily an anti-submarine
frigate it is also equipped with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles and naval guns.

Quang Trung HQ-016 Picture: https://vivamiliter.com/2019/05/22/hq-016-quang-


Q2. What will the situation be like after this move?

ANSWER: The arrival of the Gepard-class frigate should redress the naval balance of
power at Vanguard Bank now in favour of the China Coast Guard which has more and
heavier ships in the area. Chinese commanders at Vanguard Bank will have to think
twice about ramming Vietnam Coast Guard ships and the consequences of trying to
intimidate a Vietnamese military warship.
Q3. Is the move leading to a conflict between Vietnam and China in the South China
ANSWER: Vietnam has taken the first move to militarize the standoff at Vanguard
Bank. China will now face the dilemma of whether or not to respond in kind by
dispatching People’s Liberation Army Navy ships to Vanguard Bank. This would cast
China in the role of military aggressor and provoke international criticism against
Chinese leaders will also have to calculate whether an escalation would push Vietnam
closer to the United States and precipitate intervention by a coalition of outside
powers, further internationalizing maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s leaders are currently at their summer retreat in Beidaihe grappling with how
to respond to continuing civil unrest in Hong Kong and Donald Trump’s latest move to
impose further tariffs on Chinese goods. Up until now Vietnam has stood up to China
by issuing diplomatic protests and calling on Beijing to adhere to international law.
The return of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 to Vanguard Bank clearly signals that Vietnam has
concluded that China only pushes harder if Vietnam adopts a soft diplomatic stance.
Vietnam’s actions will be observed closely by regional states who have continually
backed down from confronting China. These states will call for China and Vietnam to
refrain from threatening or using force. China risks losing their good will if it resorts to
armed force against Vietnam, which will become ASEAN Chair in four and a half

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “ South China Sea: Vietnam Ups Ante, Dispatches
Frigate to Vanguard Bank,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 18, 2019. All
background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.