Energy-hungry Asia offers Russia a chance to re-engage with the continent. But is a nuclear strategy a guarantee of influence?
When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked that many of the leaders at last weekend’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit had expressed an interest in acquiring Russian nuclear energy technologies, he was merely highlighting an increasingly obvious point—nuclear power and arms sales are now the two most important sources of Moscow’s influence in Asia.
The fact that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also travelled to Hanoi to join the meeting—which saw the first formal Russian-ASEAN summit for several years—underscored Moscow’s broader interest in reaffirming Russia’s status as a major Asian power.
And from Moscow’s perspective, Hanoi was an excellent location for an ASEAN summit. Seeking to strengthen foreign ties to help manage a rising China, which contests Vietnam’s maritime claims, the Vietnamese government has been eager to reenergize its longstanding connections with Russia, as well as develop new ties with Washington.
On the sidelines of the summit, Medvedev and Vietnamese leaders signed an intergovernmental memorandum of understanding that Russia would construct Vietnam's first nuclear power plant, with a combined capacity of 2.4 GW. According to Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy monopoly, it will cost about $5.5 billion to build the two-unit plant, expected to become operational by 2020. Although the parties have yet to negotiate a firm contract, Russian officials have indicated that they are prepared to loan Vietnam (still a relatively poor country) some of the funds needed to finance the plant’s construction
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Vietnam is emerging as Moscow’s most important partner in South-east Asia. The government-run Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, PetroVietnam, has been one of the few foreign companies allowed to extract oil on Russian territory and its RusVietPetro joint venture (51 percent owned by Russia's Zarubezhneft) has been exploring deposits in the Nenets autonomous district since being registered in 2008.
In addition, Vietnam has also begun buying major Russian weapons systems. When Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Russia last December, he signed a contract to purchase six Kilo-class conventional submarines as well as other advanced military equipment. Meanwhile, this July, Vietnam agreed to purchase 20 Sukhoi fighter planes.
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