Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (L) poses for a photo with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, Vietnam March 20, 2017.  Photo: REUTERS/Kham
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (L) poses for a photo with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, Vietnam March 20, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Kham

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s tour of Vietnam indicates ties between both countries are improving, especially in the area of defense area. The state visit, which ends today, is just the second to Vietnam by an Israeli head of state.

In November 2011, former President Shimon Peres became the first Israeli leader to visit Vietnam. The bilateral relationship has progressed rapidly since then, with both nations exchanging high-level visits and extending cooperation across many fields, including trade.

According to Vietnamese statistics, the two-way trade between was US$1.3 billion last year, rising from US$68 million in 2005. Trade will increase rapidly in the next few years, with both countries committed to striking a free-trade agreement.

The core of the relationship is, and continues to be, cooperation in defense. In March 2015, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh and Israel’s Director General of the Ministry of Defense, Dan Harel, signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation, that strengthened cooperation in areas such defense sales and technology transfer.

Earlier this year, Pham Ngoc Minh, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA), received Mishel Ben-Baruch, the Director of the International Defense Cooperation Directorate of Israel’s Ministry of Defense. The meeting ended with a resolution to improve bilateral defense cooperation.

One month later, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, chairman of Israel Military Industries Ltd (IMM), a state-owned weapons developer and manufacturer, was in Hanoi.

In hosting Aharonovitch, who already visited Vietnam in February 2014 in his role as Minister of Public Security, Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang said bilateral cooperation, especially in defense, “has consistently advanced.” Quang, who toured Israel in November last year in his former role as Minister of Public Security, said Israel “has become a big partner of Vietnam in the defense field.”

Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, said he hoped that Aharonovitch and his company would continue contributing to advancing cooperation on defense.

That Vietnam’s president and a high-ranking VPA official received the head of one of Israel’s leading arms companies indicates Hanoi’s desire to enhance its defense ties with Israel and upgrade its defense capabilities.

In an IMI statement Aharonovitch said he hoped “both countries will work on streamlining the mutual collaboration and high technology knowledge transfer.” He stressed that the “advanced weapons systems developed and manufactured by IMI Systems correspond to the advanced technology used by the Vietnam army.”

While the main purpose of President Rivlin’s week-long visit is to foster cooperation in fields such as agriculture, education, health and trade, defense cooperation remains top of the agenda.

Like his predecessor six years ago, the 77-year old traveled to Hanoi accompanied by a big defense industries delegation, which reportedly includes MMI Systems, Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Elbit, Israel Aerospace and Rafael are ranked 29, 32 and 43 in the 2016 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute index of the world’s top 100 arms-producing and military service companies.

On Monday, Vietnam’s Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich received the leaders of the Israeli defense businesses. A day later, the first Vietnam-Israel defense industry forum was held in Hanoi. Lich, Rivlin and many other officials from both sides attended.

Also on Tuesday, Lich, a Politburo member, met with Rivlin and both toured an exhibit of Israeli defense equipment. During the tour, several Israeli companies, whose products were displayed, presented them with developments and advancements in unmanned planes and drones, sophisticated tanks, rocket launchers, and others.

While acknowledging that much has been achieved, both the host and the guest underlined the demand for and potential of ongoing, significant deals in defense.

According to his spokesperson, Rivlin said to Lich as “you and I were raised in countries which were battlefields, we all know that quiet, security, and peace cannot be taken for granted. The military and security forces have a role, not just in times of war, but also in times of peace.”

The message would have been well received not only because of Vietnam’s battles against foreign aggression but also for the country’s need to strengthen the military to safeguard sovereignty and territory.

China’s expansive territorial claims and its military build-up in the disputed waters of the South China Sea are now Vietnam’s biggest concern. They are also the key reason why Hanoi is seeking closer defense ties with countries that have advanced military technologies and know-how, such as Israel.

Russia and Eastern European states have been Vietnam’s main arms suppliers. That has changed in the past decade with the purchase of Western-made arms. It has, for example, ordered Israel’s surface-to-air Python and Derby (Spyder) missiles. Vietnam has increased its military spending and turned to Israel not only because it is one of the world’s top exporters of military equipment but also because the Middle East military power is willing to share its expertise.

In his talks with Vietnam’s Defense Minister, the Israeli President said his country was “a pioneer in that it recognizes the need to establish advance production lines with Israeli know-how in Vietnam, and to produce with Vietnam and in Vietnam.” Lich expressed Vietnam’s appreciation for Israel’s “extensive and excellent cooperation in the field of defense”.

That Vietnam places the greatest importance in Rivlin’s visit was evident earlier this week when he was greeted by the president, prime minister and Communist Party secretary general, the three most powerful positions in Vietnam.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.