Vietnam is arming its expanding submarine fleet with land attack missiles that could be capable of reaching Chinese coastal cities, a choice of weapon likely to be seen as provocative by China while the ongoing South China Sea dispute continues.
The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently updated data on its website to show Vietnam's acquisition of the Russian-made land attack variant of the Klub missile for its state-of-the-art Kilo attack submarines.
SIPRI arms researcher Siemon Wezeman said the entry was based on an earlier but little-noticed filing Vietnam made last year to the United Nations' register of conventional arms.
Regional military attaches and analysts see the missiles as a further sign of Vietnam's determination to counter the rise of China's military and part of a broader trend of Asian countries rearming amid rising territorial tensions.
The choice of weapon is a more assertive one than the anti-shipping missiles Vietnam was expected to obtain.
While those would potentially target Chinese ships and submarines in the South China Sea, the land attack weapons are capable of precision strikes at a range of 300 kilometres, making China's coastal cities potential targets in any conflict.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam's military at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the move was a "massive shift" beyond more routine anti-ship tactics.
Vietnam is the first Southeast Asian nation to arm its submarine fleet with a land attack missile.
While communist parties rule both Vietnam and China, Hanoi has long been wary of China, especially over Beijing's claims to most of the potentially oil-rich South China Sea.
Beijing's placement of an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam last year sparked riots in Vietna and infuriated Hanoi's leadership. Its coast guard ships and fishing boats were routinely chased away by larger Chinese ships during the standoff.
The two navies routinely confront each other over disputed holdings in the sea's Spratly islands, which straddle some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Before obtaining the latest weapons, Hanoi's previous land attack capabilities were limited to a handful of ageing Scud missiles and more limited weapons fired by Russian-built Su-30 aircraft.
SIPRI has logged the sale of 50 anti-ship and land attack Klubs to Vietnam as part of the deal, with 28 having been delivered already over the last two years. The precise number of land attack missiles it has bought is not publicly available.
According to the industry insiders, over half of the world’s submarines will be in Asia by 2030, as Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore, modernise their militaries and look to hedge against instability by building undersea fleets.