Putin’s visit shows Russia still matters a lot to Vietnam

Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phu Trong with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Communist Party Central Committee headquarters, in Hanoi, on June 20. - AFP

BANGKOK: Shunned in many parts of the world and ignoring an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Hanoi on Thursday (June 20) at the invitation of Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phu Trong. This was on the back of a rare trip to Pyongyang, where he was met with a rapturous welcome.

While Putin’s welcome in communist Vietnam was similarly lavish, its greatest importance was perhaps the message it was sending to the rest of the world.

Though Russia and Vietnam have military and economic ties that go back decades to the era of the Soviet Union, Vietnam has in recent years courted relationships with other countries, including China, the United States and Japan.

While North Korea has supplied Russia with munitions it needs for its grinding invasion of Ukraine, Vietnam buys arms from Russia. However, it has been diversifying its sources of defence equipment.

Russia has also largely been irrelevant to the economic fortunes of the South-East Asian manufacturing hub. The US$1.7 billion worth of exports Vietnam made to Russia in 2023 were dwarfed by its exports to the United States ($97 billion), China ($61.2 billion), and European Union ($43.7 billion).

Still, on June 20, Russia and Vietnam inked 11 deals, mostly related to education and research, but also significantly on cooperation between the state-owned Vietnam Oil and Gas Group and independent Russian gas producer Novatek.

Russian state-owned oil and gas company Zarubezhneft also received an investment licence to develop Block 11-2, an area with gas deposits in the South China Sea.

According to Russian news agency Interfax, Putin also said that Russian companies are ready to join large-scale gas projects in Vietnam as co-investors and suppliers.

Analysts said the Russian commitment was significant in the light of the overlapping territorial claims between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, which have disrupted Vietnamese oil and gas operations in recent years.

China’s increasing assertion of its claims over almost the entire South China Sea – and its growing confrontation with the Philippines, another claimant – have further raised temperatures on this front.

Having a foreign party enter an agreement with Vietnam to develop oil and gas deposits in an area legitimates Hanoi’s claim over the area.

“The agreements on oil and gas are the most important because they entail Russia’s support for Vietnam’s economic activities in the South China Sea,” said Dr Bich Tran, an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

But some question how far Russia is prepared to go, if it means facing off with Beijing, with whom it shares a desire to challenge US hegemony.

Hanh Nguyen, a PhD scholar at the Australian National University, told The Straits Times: “Growing Sino-Russian alignment might not bode well for Russia-Vietnam cooperation in the South China Sea in the long term. The balance in this alignment favours China, and Beijing might use this opportunity to pressure Russia to reduce oil and gas exploration activities with Vietnam.”

Vietnam walks a fine line to keep its friends amid geopolitical tensions.

Over the past few years, the communist Asian country has elevated ties with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States to the same level that it has with China and Russia. But Dr Bich stressed that Russia remains an important partner of Vietnam.

“First, until Vietnam can identify reliable and trusted arms suppliers, it still depends on Russia, at least for spare parts and maintenance, if not for new items,” she said.

“Second, Vietnam doesn’t want to see an isolated and weakened Russia that would become too dependent on China and undermine Vietnam’s interests in the South China Sea. Third, Vietnam has a preference for a multipolar world and sees Russia as an important pillar.”

Despite the furore over Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine, Vietnam has been careful to avoid criticising Moscow. Hanoi abstained from voting on United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion and, in April 2022, voted against the motion to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

Alongside South-East Asian neighbours like Cambodia, Malaysia, and Laos, Vietnam also stayed away from the June 16 peace summit in Switzerland that was led by Ukraine.

Vietnam was also one of the few countries where Putin could travel unencumbered. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, alleging that he was responsible for the forced deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia, which is a war crime.

While Russia does not recognise the court, the warrant forced Putin to skip an August 2023 summit in South Africa with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa, as a signatory to the ICC, was obliged to arrest him if he turned up, even though President Cyril Ramaphosa said such an act would be tantamount to declaring war on Russia.

Vietnam is not a state party to the Rome Statute, which created the court, so Putin needs fear no arrest while there.

Relations between Russia and Vietnam are “not purely transactional”, said Dr Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer at University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

“A focus on economic and tangible gains would undoubtedly fail to give meaningful understanding of the solidity of Vietnam-Russia ties.”

This firm footing was on display during Putin’s visit, which “helps strengthen Vietnam’s commitment towards upholding relations with traditional and historical allies”, he said. - The Straits Times/ANN

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