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Putin’s visit to Vietnam : when the past weighs on the present 

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Vietnam’s gains from hosting Russia’s president will likely pale in comparison to the expected benefits of courting other powers. However, sentiment can play a role in international relations – what’s a visit between old friends ?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 19-20 June state visit to Vietnam, at the invitation of Vietnamese Communist Party General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, is intriguing for many watchers of Vietnam’s foreign policy. What does Hanoi stand to gain from welcoming Putin – who is now under an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes against Ukraine?

Isolated and condemned internationally for his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is seeking solace and support in Russia’s few remaining allies — with China, North Korea, Iran and Myanmar among them. His visit to Hanoi would bolster Moscow’s narrative that it remains a welcomed power in Southeast Asia. Yet the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s 2024 State of Southeast Asia survey ranks Russia near the bottom in terms of strategic relevance to ASEAN. Russian propaganda will likely tout this visit as a diplomatic victory over the US, to signal that Vietnam has not completely gone over to its side. Washington views Hanoi as a priority Southeast Asian partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy and has advanced US-Vietnam ties to historically unprecedented levels in recent years.

Meanwhile, the gains for Hanoi from welcoming Putin are harder to discern. Vietnamese leadership, notably General-Secretary Trong, may perceive his “bamboo diplomacy” – which emphasises flexibility and balanced relations with all powers – as being further validated through Putin’s visit. Last year, Trong hosted both US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, deftly navigating Vietnam’s position as both a “frontline state” in the Indo-Pacific and a “well-behaved comrade” of China. Trong might view Putin’s visit as another feather in his “bamboo diplomacy” cap, hence his invitation to the Russian leader.

Putin’s presence in Hanoi could also garner applause from a segment of Vietnamese society that holds a deep fondness for Russia. Many still feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union and grateful for its support to Vietnam during the wars against the French and Americans. Some are extremely enamoured with Putin as an anti-Western symbol and a strongman leader, a phenomenon coined locally as “Putin-mania” (“cuồng Putin”). Such pro-Russian sentiments have been stoked further by Vietnamese-language Russian propaganda prevalent on social media.

Besides sentimental attachments and the leadership’s political consideration, tangible benefits for Vietnam from Putin’s visit are elusive. Bilateral trade stood at US$3.6 billion in 2023, half of the 2021 figure and a mere fraction of Vietnam’s trade with China (US$171 billion), the US (US$111 billion) and EU (US$72 billion). In 2023, Russian tourists, once among the top ten sources of foreign visitors to Vietnam, dropped to only 19 per cent of the 2019 (pre-COVID 19 pandemic) figure.

Vietnam’s foreign policy for the past two decades has been lauded for its pragmatism. However, Putin’s visit to Hanoi underscores that pragmatism is not the sole or primary guiding principle.

The prospects of furthering economic ties are dim, given the US tightening sanctions against Russia. The only exception may be in the energy sector, as Vietnam still pins its hopes on Russia’s continued participation in its hydrocarbon projects in the South China Sea (SCS) amid China’s intensifying obstruction. Additionally, Vietnamese investments in Russian oil and gas reserves through Rusvietpetro – a joint venture between state-owned Zarubezhneft and Petrovietnam – are reaping profits with Russian tax concessions.

In the arms trade, where Russia matters the most to Vietnam, Russia’s reliability as a defence partner is increasingly in question as its defence industry looks towards Chinese, North Korean and Iranian support to sustain its war machine in Ukraine. Even before the war in Ukraine, Vietnam had begun to diversify its arms supply, and this trend is likely to accelerate. Russian arms transfers to Vietnam have steadily decreased since peaking at around US$1 billion in 2014, plunging further after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to only US$72 million in 2022.

Hanoi may also argue that Putin’s visit demonstrates its strategic autonomy amid Vietnam’s burgeoning relationships with the US and US allies, notably Japan and Australia. Vietnam recently upgraded its relations with these countries to Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships. So far, these powers have fostered warm relations with Vietnam as they appreciate its strategic value in their Indo-Pacific strategies despite Hanoi’s continued efforts to maintain good ties with Russia. These countries may quietly acknowledge that Russian arms remain crucial for Vietnam to maintain some modicum of deterrence against China’s ambitions in the SCS.

Yet, as Hanoi rolls out the red carpet for Putin, the optics may be too stark for the above countries, which could potentially lead to their rethinking of Vietnam’s reliability as a strategic partner in the region. While Vietnam is not directly aiding Russia’s war efforts, its warm reception of Putin could be perceived as lending foreign legitimacy to his regime and undermining US-led international efforts to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Indeed, Putin’s war against Ukraine blatantly violates fundamental international legal principles — respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity — which Vietnam considers sacrosanct. Big powers often apply double standards in international law because they can, often with minimal penalty. However, for small states like Vietnam, consistency in upholding international law serves not only as a matter of principle but also as a crucial defence against the arbitrary actions of more powerful nations.

Kyiv will also feel the chill from Putin’s presence in Hanoi. Enduring a tumultuous history marked by repeated aggressions from larger powers and currently grappling with China’s looming threat in the SCS, Vietnam could arguably have shown greater empathy for Ukraine, a fellow small state facing aggression from a larger power. Yet, while engaging in summit-level talks with Russia, Vietnam has so far interacted with Ukraine only at the foreign minister level at the sidelines of ASEAN gatherings.

Vietnam’s foreign policy for the past two decades has been lauded for its pragmatism. However, Putin’s visit to Hanoi underscores that pragmatism is not the sole or primary guiding principle. Factors such as risk aversion, path dependency, and sentimental attachments to a foreign power also influence the Vietnamese elite’s decisions, which are not always based on a rational cost-benefit calculus. While Russia’s value to Vietnam lies more in the past than in the present and future, Putin’s “memory diplomacy” still has some mileage in Vietnam.

By Hoang Thi Ha – / Yusof Ishak Institute – June 19, 2024

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