HANOI – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met this week with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, a top-level sign that the Cold War allies remain close in the New Cold War era.
Lavrov’s visit was at the invitation of Vietnam’s foreign ministry, per the Vietnamese government, and is the first by a Russian official since hostilities broke out with Ukraine on February 24. Vietnam is Russia’s top Southeast Asian partner and is viewed as a lynchpin for maintaining stable relations in the region.
Lavrov held separate meetings with Son, Chinh, and Trong during his two-day visit, representing the ministerial, state, and Party levels of Vietnam’s leadership. The diplomatic message is clear: Vietnam highly values its relationship with Russia at all levels. Vietnamese state media underscored that the visit further solidifies Russia as one of Vietnam’s pre-eminent diplomatic partners.
Economically, bilateral trade and investment remain strong and growing. Trade reached US$7.1 billion last year and Russia reportedly has 151 investment projects in Vietnam with a total value of US$950 million. Vietnam also has a free trade agreement with the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan).
Cooperation in the energy sector is of top importance, with several Russian oil and gas outfits operating off Vietnam’s coast, providing Hanoi with a certain geopolitical buffer against China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed and resource-rich South China Sea.
Lavrov expressed appreciation to Vietnam during his meeting with Son for refusing to join the “illegitimate” international sanctions regime led by the US and, perhaps cynically, called on all nations to respect international law. He also used the occasion to blast the West and the Ukrainian government, saying that Western support for Ukraine is tantamount to sponsoring state terrorism.
On Vietnam, Lavrov added that the country is “a key partner” within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN, for its part, has been muted as an organization on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with member states split on the issue and some sending mixed messages.
Lavrov also stated that “the two countries’ relations are based on history and their common fight for justice,” a reference to the decades-long collaborative efforts between Moscow and Hanoi dating back to the Vietnam War and earlier.
Indeed, Son explicitly referenced Moscow’s historic contribution to Vietnam’s independence and reunification during the meeting.
As a symbolic gesture, Lavrov also used the occasion to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, modeled after Vladimir Lenin’s. Russia remains the only member of the United Nations Security Council to never invade Vietnam, a fact hardly lost on the country’s leadership.
Hanoi has consistently refused to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. While the Vietnamese envoy to Ukraine expressed surprise, and the foreign ministry called for observance of the UN charter at the beginning of the conflict, Vietnam has never mentioned Russia by name when calling for restraint.
Vietnam and Laos – the latter being a country over which Hanoi still wields significant influence – were the only two Southeast Asian UN General Assembly members to vote against the US-led resolution to expel Russia from the UN human rights council in April.
Vietnam has either abstained or voted against every UN resolution against Russia since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Vietnam has also flexed its authoritarian muscles domestically by preventing Vietnamese citizens from protesting the war.
More vexing for Washington is the possibility that Vietnam and Russia will hold joint military exercises later this year, as reported in April. Vietnam has neither confirmed nor denied that the exercises are scheduled, and there is speculation that the drills may not occur. Nonetheless, the prospect has raised eyebrows in Washington.
The occasion for Lavrov’s visit was the 10th anniversary of the two sides’ signing of a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the friendliest, most intimate designation Vietnam can ascribe to a foreign country under its “four nos” foreign policy which prohibits international military alliances.
After establishing relations in 1950, the bilateral relationship was formally elevated to a “strategic partnership” in 2001 and again to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2012. The two sides also expressed a shared commitment to deepen relations in the context of the partnership, which formally runs until 2030, “in all areas.”
China and India are the only two other countries to enjoy said a partnership with Vietnam. The designation, however, is not a substitute for a formal alliance. Despite being classified as the highest tier of security partner with Hanoi, Beijing remains Vietnam’s top geopolitical threat and increasing cooperation with the US is a direct upshot of that reality.
As for the US, Hanoi and Washington entered into a “comprehensive partnership” in 2013. This arrangement is formally two rungs beneath that enjoyed with Russia. “Strategic partnership” falls between the two, a designation given to around a dozen countries, and upgrading the US to this status has for unclear reasons been delayed.
Nonetheless, US-Vietnam bilateral relations are steadily improving, and Vietnam’s partnership with the US has been more substantive than that with most formal strategic partners.
Given the shared objective of containing China, Vietnam has emerged as an important US strategic partner. The two countries share the desire to curb an increasingly assertive and militarized China from further expansion in the South China Sea. Such links, however, may be put in jeopardy by continued cooperation with Russia and purchases of Russian military equipment.
Vietnam is reportedly Russia’s third most significant arms importer, after China and India.
The 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) allows the US to sanction any country that procures arms from Russia. Vietnam, like India, has not been sanctioned under the law, though it has not received a formal waiver, either.
The likelihood that Vietnam would be sanctioned under CAATSA was low prior to the Russian invasion. That possibility has been revived, though, as Hanoi continues to buy arms from Moscow while providing it persistent diplomatic cover.
Indeed, Lavrov’s meeting with the country’s top leadership is further indication that Hanoi has no interest in jettisoning its relationship with Moscow or abandoning its multilateral approach to a non-aligned foreign policy despite US pressure to take sides over the Ukraine war.
That the US would risk alienating a key partner remains remote as it finds itself without leverage on the issue and thus is unlikely to institute punitive measures in sight of its contest with China in the Asia-Pacific. Along with India, Vietnam’s current status as an indispensable Indo-Pacific partner of the US has thus far allowed it to duck CAATSA sanctions.
The US lifted an embargo on weapons sales to Vietnam in 2016, and then-US leader Barack Obama became the first US president to visit reunified Vietnam a full 40 years after the two former battlefield adversaries ended their long war.
US policymakers hoped the move to lift the embargo and subsequent charm offensive would open the door to weening Vietnam off its dependency on Russian hardware. This initiative was sustained under the Trump administration as Washington encouraged Hanoi to buy more US arms.
While that hope has partially come to fruition as the Vietnamese arsenal has reportedly fallen from over 90% Russian-made equipment to now around 80% – with US hardware making up some of the difference – the reduction is not nearly comprehensive enough to be decisive.
Interoperability and familiarity with Russian weaponry remain a sticking point as it would take years to train Vietnam’s armed forces in new, American-made weapons systems. Vietnam’s armed forces, battle-hardened for most of the 20th century, are still regarded as among the best in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam’s leadership thus still likely regards its partnership with Russia as indispensable to national security. In addition to its reliance on Russian arms and its entrenched familiarity with their weapons systems, Vietnam may be hopeful that Russia can be a moderating force on China in the context of their stated “no limits” partnership.
By all accounts, Vietnam sees itself as increasingly encircled and threatened by China. China borders Vietnam to the north, has militarized the South China Sea to the east, and is reportedly aiming to establish a military base in Cambodia to the west.
At the same time, Vietnam may worry that crucial assistance provided by Russia to modernize their military in the South China Sea to defend against Chinese threats may be undercut at the behest of Beijing, which would be a devastating blow to Vietnam’s military readiness, particularly with respect to crucial anti-access area denial capability.
Vietnam has sought closer relations with the US to mitigate this risk but, given its commitment to multilateral diplomacy, likely want to keep all options on the table and remain open to all potential partners. To be sure, in addition to the US and Russia, Vietnam has sought good relations with several powers relevant to their national security including Europe, India, Japan and South Korea.
Though China remains Vietnam’s clearest and most present threat, particularly in the contested South China Sea, Hanoi has been characteristically tight-lipped in respect to the “no limits” Chinese and Russian partnership announced earlier this year. It is not known whether the topic was discussed during Lavrov’s visit.
Hanoi thus finds itself walking a familiar tightrope. While it might seem that Vietnam is in Russia’s camp in emerging New Cold War blocs, that characterization is complicated by the fact that Vietnam is largely a beneficiary and relatively supportive of the so-called rules-based order upheld by the US and undermined by Russia.
Ultimately, however, Vietnam’s strategy as a mid-level power geographically placed in the middle of a global hotspot boils down to minimizing risk.
For its part, Russia is seeking to deepen relations with Asian nations in pursuit of its Eurasian strategy to mitigate the fallout with most of Europe over the Ukraine war. Lavrov was in Mongolia to meet with the country’s top leaders prior to heading to Vietnam.
Unlike Germany, which canceled the controversial Nordstream 2 pipeline, Mongolia is set to allow the Soyuz-Vostok pipeline, part of the larger Power of Siberia 2 project, to flow through its territory as Russia amps up its energy supplies to China.
A project plan was signed by the two sides on February 28, just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine without any mention of the so-called “special military operation.” The consecutive Mongolia and Vietnam meetings arguably give Russia diplomatic momentum heading into what is sure to be a cooler reception at the G20 meetings in Bali.
Nate Fischler is an independent Asia-based reporter and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter at @NateFischler