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Russia, Vietnam slowly but surely parting strategic ways

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Hanoi is now openly diversifying its weaponry purchases away from Moscow, an emerging break driven by the war in Ukraine.

When Vietnam hosted this month its first-ever International Defense Expo at a military airstrip in Hanoi, the event signaled a quiet but evolving shift in the communist nation’s defense policy.

As many as 170 exhibitors from 30 countries attended the mega-event, which was originally planned for 2020 during Vietnam’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Russia’s dominance of Vietnam’s current weapon inventory was on full display when a squadron of Russian-made Su-30MK2 fighters and Mi helicopters greeted the audience at the expo’s opening ceremony.

Vietnam has looked to Russia for more than 70% of its imported weapons over the last decade, a fall from its almost 100% reliance in the early 2010s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Apart from JSC Rosoboronexport, Russia’s primary arms-exporting company, major global defense companies were also in attendance, including Lockheed Martin of the US, Airbus of Europe, Mitsubishi Electric of Japan and BrahMos Aerospace of India.

With Western sanctions targeting Russia’s arms exporters, Vietnam’s expo demonstrated the communist regime’s stepped-up efforts to diversify its defense supplies away from Moscow.

At his expo speech, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh spoke openly of his country’s aim to “diversify [its] arms trading channels [and] receive technology transfers from foreigners.”

The diversification strategy will Vietnam and South Korea recently signing “a comprehensive and strategic partnership.”

Meanwhile, Group of Seven (G7) Western powers have also announced a multi-billion dollar package to aid Vietnam’s efforts to reduce reliance on its traditional energy sources, thus potentially undermining another major node in Vietnam-Russia relations.

Russia has been a major partner in the development of Vietnam’s energy sector, from nuclear energy to offshore hydrocarbon resources. Russian companies such as Gazprom, Zarubezhneft, and Rosneft have been involved in about a third of crude oil (30%) and a fourth of natural gas (25%) development projects in Vietnam. 

As such, Russia’s place in Vietnam’s strategic priorities cannot be overstated. The two countries were staunch allies during the Cold War, ties forged in the devastating Indo-China Wars where Moscow served as Hanoi’s main strategic patron against both the United States and then-Maoist China.

More recently, Russia served as a major source of Covid-19 vaccines for Vietnam, which refused to rely on Chinese-made vaccines for both public health and national security reasons.

Crucially, Moscow has also been the predominant source of modern weaponry for Hanoi, which has rapidly developed its defensive capabilities in light of maritime tensions in the South China Sea. Over the past two decades, Russia supplied Vietnam with modern submarines and fighter jets, with total sales amounting to more than US$10 billion.

But Vietnam is now clearly trying to expand its weaponry horizons to reduce its Russian reliance. Last year, Vietnam’s dependency ratio on Russian armaments fell below 60% for the first time in recent history, as the Southeast Asian nation expanded defense cooperation with new suppliers like South Korea.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will reinforce the trend. Diplomatically, Vietnam has tried to steer clear of the crisis as much as possible to avoid piquing Moscow as well as alienating the West.

The Southeast Asian country abstained from a March UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against a neighboring state. In April, it voted against a resolution calling for Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Most ASEAN states condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, with no less than Singapore, Asia’s main regional hub, imposing its own sanctions on Moscow and condemning the invasion as an “existential issue” to all smaller states.

Despite its carefully-crafted diplomatic neutrality, Vietnam has struggled to shield itself from the impact of Western sanctions on Russia. Earlier this year, Vietnamese Ambassador to Russia Dang Minh Khoi warned of massive negative impacts on bilateral trade due to Western financial and logistics sanctions.

With the US doubling down on sanctions against Russia’s defense industry through the stringent implementation of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Vietnam has been forced to rethink its strategic priorities.

Neighboring Philippines and Indonesia have already canceled big-ticket arms purchases from Russia in order to avoid running afoul of CAATSA.

For Vietnam, its main concern is maintenance and the long-term sustainability of arms purchases from Russia, whose weaponry’s poor performance against Ukraine has badly undermined the previous prestige and marketability of its global defense industry.

Vietnam’s emerging new strategic thinking was on openly articulated during the defense expo. Prime Minister Chinh underscored how the event opens up “opportunities for cooperation, study, research of the latest developing trends of defense and security industry around the world.”

He noted the need for “diversify[ing] arms trading channels” as well as “receiv[ing] technology transfers from foreigners”, indicating an apparent new preference for working with multiple suppliers in order to enhance domestic defense production capabilities.

In November, Major General Nguyen Viet Hung, a deputy political commissar in charge of the defense industry, similarly touted the historic expo as a means to “enhance collaboration in the national defense industry, diversify the channels for procurement, technology acquisition and transfer for equipment production and logistics for the requirements of the armed forces.”

According to GlobalData, a London-based data analytics company, Vietnam defense acquisition expenditures will like increase by .5% per annum to reach $8.5 billion in the next five years. The Southeast Asian country is also rapidly developing its own domestic industry, including through the domestic production of drones and patrol aircraft.

While Russia will remain a major partner for the foreseeable future, Vietnam is clearly casting around for new partners in the neighborhood, particularly South Korea and India, which have emerged as new major players in the global arms industry, especially among developing countries looking for easy-to-maintain and cost-effective weapons.

Vietnam’s deepening relations with the West and its regional allies is also apparent on other key strategic fronts. Major South Korean conglomerates like LG and Samsung have pledged multi-billion investments in semiconductor industries in Vietnam, as part of broader efforts to reduce global supply-chain reliance on China.

The G7, meanwhile, recently announced a $15.5 billion plan to facilitate the Southeast Asian country’s renewable energy development. The “Just Energy Transition Partnership” between the G7 and Vietnam aims to help Vietnam source close to half of its energy needs from renewable resources by 2030.

“Today, Vietnam has demonstrated leadership in charting an ambitious clean energy transition that will deliver long-term energy security,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement following the historic deal, which if implemented will reduce Vietnam’s dependence on Russia for its energy security.

By Richard Javad Heydarian – Asia Times – December 17, 2022

Russia, Vietnam slowly but surely parting strategic ways
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