Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) greets his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/Pool/Natalia Kolesnikova

As Russia’s relations deteriorate with the West, Vietnam will find it increasingly difficult to balance its diversified strategic ties.

While many observers saw last month’s visit of America’s USS Carl Vinson air craft carrier to the central Vietnamese port of Da Nang as a symbolic breakthrough, Russia is and remains Vietnam’s preeminent defense partner.

Despite the US carrier’s significant firepower, the docking was more an exercise in soft than hard power, with US soldiers kicking footballs, playing rock and roll and visiting orphanages rather than flexing military muscles.

While more public relations than strategic dialogue, the visit nonetheless served as a highly potent confidence-building exercise at a time both the US and Vietnam aim to counter China’s rising assertiveness in the contested and strategically important South China Sea.

But the US versus China great power narrative is only part of the story for Vietnam. While the US maintained a decades-long lethal arms embargo against the country’s communist regime, Russia provided weaponry in abundance.

From 2011-2015, 93% of Vietnam’s procured armaments were delivered by Russia. Vietnam is currently Russia’s third biggest arms market worldwide, trailing only India and China.

Russian fighter jets before celebrations marking the 72nd anniversary of the end of World War II on May 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Vietnam’s reliance on Russian hardware and knowhow dates back to their Cold War alliance. And the longevity of Hanoi’s defense relationship with Moscow continues to be a point of strength, both in terms of interoperability and familiarity.

That’s underpinned the two sides’ “comprehensive strategic partnership”, an important designation of top ties in Vietnam’s multidirectional foreign and defense policies.

By contrast, the US and Vietnam share a more middling “comprehensive partnership”, a term first employed after an upgrade in bilateral ties in 2013. Vietnam shares bilateral “comprehensive partnerships” with 11 other countries.

While the lifting of America’s arms embargo on Vietnam by then-President Barrack Obama in 2016 and this month’s USS Carl Vinson visit represent milestones in US-Vietnam defense cooperation, Russia has been and will for the foreseeable future remain Vietnam’s top arms supplier.

Vietnam is a large weapons importer for its size and military modernization will likely remain a policy priority as tensions spike in the South China Sea with no clear end in sight.

Vietnam has yet to make any significant purchases of US military hardware, despite lobbying by US President Donald Trump last November and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in January.

US President Donald Trump welcomes Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the West Wing Portico of the White House, May 31, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/Cheriss May

Vietnam’s familiarity with Russian arms means American procurements would come with a high cost and complicated process of weapons integration into its wider arsenal.

More importantly, perhaps, Vietnam’s ties with Russia come without any ideological baggage. While the US consistently pushes for domestic reforms in Vietnam, including allowances for independent labor unions, Russia does not press for democracy or rights as part of its engagement.

America’s push for those principles remains a source of anxiety for Vietnamese policymakers, particularly as strategic relations warm in a joint bid to counterbalance China in the South China Sea.

Some experts even opine that the Communist Party-led government is keen to prevent pro-US political groups from gaining momentum and challenging its authority amid the warming trend, causing the regime to not fully embrace America’s overtures. Russia will thus remain an important counterbalance as Vietnam re-calibrates its US and China relations.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Hanoi in January to take part in high-level meetings with his counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich, President Tran Dai Quang and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

That Vietnam’s most senior officials met with Shoigu indicates Russia’s premier status in Vietnam’s defense modernization and security policies.

Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu (C) inspects an honor guard in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 23, 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During Shoigu’s visit, Trong reemphasized that Vietnam’s comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia remains a top policy priority and that it still regards Russia as its most important partner for military cooperation.

Such rhetoric, to be sure, has long been commonplace between the two sides during defense interactions. Substantively, Shoigu’s visit gave rise to new agreements for joint military drills through 2020, as well as training in peacekeeping and law enforcement.

Russia and Vietnam signed a US$2 billion agreement during then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit to Russia in 2009 to procure six kilo-class submarines – capable of attacking China – outfitted with Russian-made surface-to-surface Klub missiles with a precision strike range of 300 kilometers.

All six have since been delivered, with the Russian navy training Vietnamese crews. Last year, Russia also sent rocket test monitoring stations to Vietnam and has shared anti-surface warfare missile and modern military shipbuilding designs with Vietnam, both of which are now locally produced.

In June 2015, Vietnam unveiled several locally-made Tarantul-class corvettes, known by the Russian name Molniya, which have a missile range of 130 kilometers.

Thanks to Russia, Deputy Defense Minister Truong Quang Khanh declared that the Vietnamese Navy can now “fully master the technology and techniques of modern military shipbuilding”, a significant boost to its combat capabilities in the South China Sea.

A Russian submarine launches a missile from the Barents Sea near Norway, June 2017. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry

Vietnam has acquired a total of 129 missile systems, 36 aircraft and eight naval vessels from Russia since 2011.

While Moscow may enjoy special privileges as Hanoi’s top military partner, Vietnam’s defense and foreign policies are still dictated by the so-called “three no’s” policy, which boils down to no military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil and no relationships directed specifically against third parties.

In line with that diversified policy, Vietnam let Russia’s 25-year lease of the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic deep water port opening on to the South China Sea, to expire in 2004. The US is known to have interest in gaining possible regular access to the strategic port facility.

Deteriorating relations with the West have led Russia to rebalance its relationship with China, mitigating somewhat how much military support it is willing to provide Vietnam to gain an advantage in the South China Sea.

While tensions between China and Vietnam have motivated Hanoi to lean towards the US, Russia has made sure not to destabilize the situation by offering Vietnam weaponry that would significantly shift the maritime region’s balance of power and necessarily irk Beijing.

While the US would like for Vietnam to reduce its dependence on Russian armaments, and amid reports Hanoi is growing disenchanted with the pricing of certain Russia-made armaments Moscow is also offering to Beijing, the two sides’ close strategic ties won’t be supplanted by the US any time soon.

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