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Russia and Vietnam agree to strengthen ties during Putin state visit

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Vietnam’s president says two countries want to ‘push up’ defence and security cooperation as US criticises meeting.

Russia and Vietnam have pledged to strengthen ties, as Vladimir Putin made a state visit to Hanoi that was intended to signal his country still has allies in the region.

The Russian president arrived at Hanoi airport in the early hours of Thursday, and was met on a red carpet by the Vietnamese deputy prime minister Tran Hong Ha and the top party diplomat Le Hoai Trung. He arrived from a high-profile visit to North Korea, where he signed a defence pact with Kim Jong-un that included a clause requiring the countries to come to each other’s aid if either was attacked.

The Vietnamese president, To Lam, said the two countries wanted “to push up cooperation in defence and security, how to deal with non-traditional security challenges on the basis of international law, for peace and security in the region and the world”.

Putin’s visit has drawn criticism from the US, one of Vietnam’s top trade partners, which has warned it risks normalising Russia’s “blatant violations of international law”.

Lam and Putin signed 11 memorandums for cooperation in areas including civil nuclear projects, energy and petrol cooperation, education and disease prevention. Putin told reporters the talks were constructive and that both sides had “identical or very close” positions on key international issues.

He said they discussed creating “an adequate and reliable security architecture in Asia-Pacific based on the principles of not resorting to force, and of resolving differences peacefully”.

In an opinion piece to coincide with his visit, published in Vietnam’s Communist party newspaper Nhan Dan, Putin listed progress on payments, energy and trade between the countries, and applauded Vietnam for supporting “a pragmatic way to solve the crisis” in Ukraine.

Vietnam has repeatedly abstained in UN general assembly votes relating to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Vietnam’s leadership favours a so-called “bamboo diplomacy” – which sways with the winds, and avoids picking sides in international disputes – including in relation to Ukraine, and the rivalry between the US and China.

Vietnam, a manufacturing powerhouse, has grown closer to the US and its allies, and last year the Communist party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, hosted the US president, Joe Biden, and upgraded ties with Washington, as well as with Australia and Japan. China’s president, Xi Jinping, also made a state visit three months later.

Analysts questioned whether Putin’s visit would bring any tangible benefit to Vietnam, and said it was instead a reflection of the two countries’ historical ties.

Russia is a longstanding friend of Vietnam, where many still remember the support the Soviet Union gave to Vietnam in past wars against the French and the US. The former Soviet Union was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh.

Putin was scheduled to meet Trong, who is among many officials who studied in the Soviet Union, as well as Lam and the prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh. The Russian leader was also due to attend wreath-laying ceremonies, including at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which houses the embalmed corpse of Vietnam’s founding leader.

Russia is not a major source of trade for Vietnam, and international sanctions against Russia mean there is a low likelihood of a major economic announcement. The US, UK and the European Union all announced new sanctions over the past week. Trade between Vietnam and Russia stood at just $3.5bn in 2022 – far less than Vietnam’s $175bn trade with China and $123bn with the US.

The two countries do have strong energy ties, however, with Russian firms operating in Vietnamese oil and gas fields in the South China Sea – areas also claimed by China.

Russia is also the biggest supplier of weapons to the country, though arms transfers have fallen over recent years, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian president’s visit to Vietnam comes after he signed a pact with Kim that raised western concerns about potential Russian aid for North Korea’s missile or nuclear programmes during the summit in Pyongyang.

The agreement included a clause requiring the countries to come to each other’s aid if either was attacked.

The US state department said deepening Russia-North Korea ties were “of great concern”, while a top Ukrainian official accused Pyongyang of abetting Moscow’s “mass murder of Ukrainians”.

A spokesperson for the US embassy in Hanoi also warned before the visit to Vietnam that “no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalise his atrocities”.

By Rebecca Ratcliffe – The Guardian with Reuters and Agence France Presse – June 20, 2024

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