Putin signs deals with Vietnam in bid to shore up ties in Asia | World News

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Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a series of deals with his Vietnamese counterpart To Lam on Thursday, during a state visit that comes as Moscow is seeking to bolster ties in Asia to offset growing international isolation over its military actions in Ukraine.

Russia President Vladimir Putin disembarks from a plane upon his arrival in Vietnam at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on June 20th, 2024. (AFP )
Russia President Vladimir Putin disembarks from a plane upon his arrival in Vietnam at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on June 20th, 2024. (AFP )

The two signed agreements to further cooperation on education, science and technology, oil and gas exploration and health. They also agreed to work on a roadmap for a nuclear science and technology centre in Vietnam.

Also read | Vladimir Putin signs pact with Kim Jong Un: ‘Russia & North Korea vowed…’

Following the talks, Putin said that the two countries share an interest in “developing a reliable security architecture” in the Asia-Pacific Region based on not using force and peacefully settling disputes with no room for “closed military-political blocs.”

This was echoed by Vietnam’s new President To Lam, who said they seek to further “further cooperate in defence and security to cope with non-traditional security challenges” while implementing energy projects and expanding investments. He also congratulated Putin on his re-election and praised Russia’s “domestic political stability.”

The agreements between Russia and Vietnam were not as substantial as an agreement Putin signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the previous day, pledging mutual aid in the event of invasion said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and a former British ambassador to Belarus.

Putin arrived in Hanoi early Thursday morning from North Korea, where he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed an agreement that pledges mutual aid in the event of war. The strategic pact that could mark the strongest connection between Moscow and Pyongyang since the end of the Cold War comes as both face escalating standoffs with the West.

Putin also met Vietnam’s most powerful politician, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, as well as Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, according to the official Vietnam News Agency. He is also scheduled to meet parliamentary chief Tran Thanh Man.

Putin drove to Vietnam’s Presidential Palace on Thursday afternoon, where he was greeted by school children waving Russian and Vietnamese flags. There, he shook hands with and embraced Lam before a bilateral meeting and a joint briefing to the media.

Russia is keen to maintain “close and effective cooperation” in energy, industry, technology, education, security and trade, Russian Ambassador to Vietnam Gennady S. Bezdetko said on Wednesday, according to Vietnamese official media.

The trip has resulted in a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Embassy in the country.

Much has changed since Putin’s last visit to Vietnam in 2017. Russia now faces a raft of U.S.-led sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine. In 2023, the International Criminal Court in Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes. The Kremlin rejected it as “null and void,” stressing that Moscow doesn’t recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

Putin’s recent visits to China and now North Korea and Vietnam are attempts to “break the international isolation,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The U.S. and its allies have expressed growing concerns over a possible arms arrangement in which Pyongyang provides Moscow with badly needed munitions for its use in Ukraine, in exchange for economic assistance and technology transfers that could enhance the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile program.

Both countries deny accusations of weapons transfers, which would violate multiple U.N. Security Council sanctions that Russia previously endorsed.

Meanwhile, Russia is important to Vietnam for two reasons, Giang said: It is the biggest supplier of military equipment to the Southeast Asian nation, and Russian oil exploration technologies help maintain its sovereignty claims in the contested South China Sea.

“Russia is signalling that it is not isolated in Asia despite the Ukraine war, and Vietnam is reinforcing a key traditional relationship even as it also diversifies ties with newer partners,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

It is unlikely that Vietnam will supplying significant quantities of weapons to Russia, because that would risk progress the country has made with NATO members on military equipment, particularly the U.S., which has donated naval patrol vessels and is in talks to supply aircraft, said Ridzwan Rahmat, a Singapore-based analyst with the defence intelligence company Janes.

“There is progress that you wouldn’t have imagined just 10 years ago,” he said. “So I would imagine Vietnam wouldn’t want to take a risk, inviting the wrath of Western countries by supplying the Russians.”

Hanoi and Moscow have had diplomatic relations since 1950, and this year marks 30 years of a treaty establishing “friendly relations” between Vietnam and Russia.

Evidence of this long relationship and its influence can be seen in Vietnamese cities like the capital, where the many Soviet-style apartment blocks are now dwarfed by skyscrapers and a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, stands in a park where kids skateboard every evening. Many of the Communist Party’s top leadership in Vietnam studied in Soviet universities, including party chief Trong.

In an article written for Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Putin vowed to deepen the ties between Moscow and Hanoi and hailed Vietnam as a “strong supporter of a fair world order based on international law, on the principles of equality of all states and non-interference in their domestic affairs.”

He also thanked “Vietnamese friends for their balanced position on the Ukrainian crisis,” in the article released by the Kremlin.

Given Putin’s international isolation, Vietnam is doing the Russian leader a “huge favour and may expect favours in return,” wrote Andrew Goledzinowski, the Australian ambassador to Vietnam, on social media platform X. He said that it would have been hard for Vietnam to decline the visit since Putin was already in Asia and Vietnam has historical ties with the former Soviet Republic, but said that it was unlikely that the two would be strategic partners again. “Vietnam will always act in Vietnam’s interests and not anyone else’s,” he wrote.

Vietnam’s pragmatic policy of “bamboo diplomacy” — a phrase coined by Trong referring to the plant’s flexibility, bending but not breaking in the shifting headwinds of global geopolitics — is being increasingly tested.

A manufacturing powerhouse and an increasingly important player in global supply chains, Vietnam played host to both U.S. President Joe Biden and the leader of rival China, Xi Jinping, in 2023.

The visit was important for Hanoi on a diplomatic level, said Gould-Davies, the former ambassador.

“Perhaps for Vietnam it’s a matter of just showing that it’s able to maintain this very agile balance of its bamboo diplomacy,” he said. “Already in the course of a year they’ve hosted visits by the heads of state of the three most powerful countries in the world, which is pretty impressive.”

Similarly, for Russia the visit seems to have been more about optics than anything else, he said, as Moscow seeks to engage and influence other countries, particularly in the so-called Global South.

“Since the war began, Putin has not been able to travel much or very far, and he’s made very few trips beyond the countries of the former Soviet space,” he said.

“This is helpful to Russia as it tries to burnish its reputation.”

Vietnam has remained neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But neutrality is getting trickier, with the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi criticizing Putin’s visit, saying that “no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities.” If Putin is allowed to travel freely it “could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law,” the statement said.

Vietnam needs support from the U.S. to advance its economic ambitions and diversify its defence ties, Parameswaran said. “It has to carefully calibrate what it does with Russia in an environment of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow.”

Bilateral trade between Russia and Vietnam was at $3.6 billion in 2023, compared to $171 billion with China and $111 billion with America.

Since the early 2000s, Russia accounted for around 80% of Vietnam’s arms imports. This has been declining over the years due to Vietnamese attempts to diversify its supplies. But to entirely wean itself off Russia will take time, said Giang.

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