Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Vietnam Presses the Flesh in Asia

But are its efforts to bolster ties with the US and Asian nations only about containing China—and protecting its territorial interests?

By Bridget O'Flaherty for

Just about any overture Vietnam made or received last year was interpreted as a further move in some kind of China containment strategy, or at the least as a response to the territorial dispute with Beijing over ownership of the oil-rich Spratly-Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea. 

The clearest evidence was in the US-Vietnam relationship, which in 2010 appeared warmer than ever. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Vietnam twice—in July for the ASEAN regional forum and in October for the ASEAN and East Asia summits—during which time she made a point of reaffirming the importance of the relationship. (Although perhaps to her hosts’ irritation, she also raised the communist nation’s human rights record and its blocking of internet sites such as Facebook).

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, also paid a visit in October, marvelling at the progress in ties between the two countries since the Vietnam War. In addition, the two countries have conducted joint military operations, including a training exercise involving the USS John McCain and Vietnamese forces. These moves followed the symbolic visit by the USS Lassen in 2009, which docked in Vietnam captained by Commander Hung Ba Le, who fled Vietnam at the age of five. 

But although it has been blossoming ties with the United States that have been getting much of the attention, a China-wary Vietnam has for some time been pursuing improved ties with other nations in the region.

Russia

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‘Inside each piece of meat is love between Vietnam and Russia,’ says Pham Thanh Giang, a Soviet-trained former economist, over lamb shashlik at his ‘Russian-style’ barbecue restaurant in Saigon. 

Giang, like tens of thousands of others, studied in the Soviet Union—first Ukraine then Uzbekistan—for nine years, before moving back to Vietnam and working in a research institute on Vietnam’s five- and ten-year plans.  He says he opened his Spartan-looking restaurant beside the War Remnants Museum in 1994, cooking up some of the recipes his Ukrainian girlfriend’s mother had taught him. 

The museum is one of a handful of examples of communist involvement pre-1991, with the odd, concrete monstrosity of a building surviving among the now-feted colonial architecture. 

Prior to the fall of the USSR, Vietnamese students were often educated in Soviet Bloc countries, with scientists and central planners moving back to take up important positions in government. The less lucky were exported as guest workers, and many today still take their chances working illegally in Russia and former bloc countries such as Ukraine. (Interestingly, some have argued that the ongoing problems of state-owned ship building company Vinashin and those besetting EVN can be partly traced to the government’s old-style Soviet training). 

‘Even though the socialist system has changed…I feel the same. People don’t change,’ says Giang, who still appears sentimental over his busty, blonde Ukrainian love some three decades on.

Russia and Vietnam have in many ways been echoing this refrain of late. For example, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in Hanoi for ASEAN talks late last year, in a trip that included the signing of a deal under which Russia will build Vietnam’s first nuclear reactor as part of a $5 billion project. 

For Russia, the deal was a welcome affirmation of its technological prowess and came after Vietnam also purchased six Kilo-class submarines, a move many see as tied to Vietnam’s ongoing Spratly-Paracel dispute. 

Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with Allan and Associates, a security consultancy group based in Hong Kong, says, ‘The surge in defence spending ahead of the Party Congress, particularly for weapons systems…that appear to be directed at somehow countering growing Chinese military power in the region, may be seen by key leaders in Hanoi as a small price to pay for giving the appearance of standing up to Beijing—regardless of the economic and military realities.’

All of this said, it seems unlikely that these warmer ties will ever echo the Internationale days of old. After all, trade isn’t spectacular, Russia doesn’t give much in aid to Vietnam, and the West, Europe and Asian nations such as Japan and Korea are still the preferred choices as study destinations.  

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Meanwhile, despite the rumours, the Cam Ranh naval base—which was leased to Russia after the Americans vacated—won’t be taken over again, according to state media. (Although it will be open to foreign navies). 

India

The relationship between India and Vietnam is also one of friendship, dating back to Indian opposition to the US invasion of Vietnam. As Vietnam analyst Prof. Carlyle Thayer, of the Australian Defence Force Academy, notes: ‘There’s a historical dimension dating back to the time of Ho Chi Minh and Nehru. There’s a nostalgic relationship as India was one of the main leaders in the non-aligned movement.’

Thayer and Indian academic Ramesh Thakur wrote a treatise in 1991, just before the fall of the Soviet Union, about Vietnamese-Soviet, Soviet-Indo and Indo-Vietnamese relations. Even then it was noted that not only did India regard Vietnam as a partner and balance against China, but that both also had strong alliances with Moscow. Indeed, both India and Vietnam are among Russia’s five largest arms customers, with India buying and producing Russian arms and helping upgrade Vietnam’s MiG aircraft and navy patrol boats. 

And, although India’s Naxalites—the Maoist rebels who killed hundreds in India last year alone—once took Vietcong guerrillas as a role model, Vietnam and the Indian army have agreed to joint military exercises. During October’s ASEAN meet in Hanoi, for example, Indian Defence Minister A. K. Anthony and Gen. Phung Quang Thanh signed a deal extending defence ties, and there are also plans for India to help Vietnam in IT and in the English language sector. 

Japan

Japan’s relations with Vietnam have been a little more complicated. It occupied French Indochina in the 1940s, a period during which as many as 2 million Vietnamese starved to death, according to some estimates. But as with many of Vietnam’s former enemies, time and victory have healed old wounds. 

Japan is Vietnam’s biggest aid donor, giving more in ODA than any other nation, most of which is used for infrastructure projects such as underpasses, bridges, roads, sewers canals and a planned subway. Indeed, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan reiterated at the ASEAN summit his country’s 79 billion yen commitment to 5 large-scale projects.   

Meanwhile, Japan was also set to supply the technology for the country’s first bullet train, a multi-billion dollar folly pushed for by Prime Minister Nguyen TanDung that was roundly rebuked by National Assembly members, who noted the country’s poor infrastructure and the huge cost of the project. 

More recently, Japan has announced it’s set to build two more of Vietnam’s nuclear power stations, and has signed a contract to mine rare earth metals in the country’s north, which Japan hopes will lessen the Chinese stranglehold on a commodity vital to its high-tech industry. 

South Korea

The size of South Korea’s business interests are most evident in the new, glitzy Korean districts in both Vietnam’s major cities, which are full of Korean restaurants, bars, supermarkets and upscale gaming cafes that lack their Vietnamese counterparts’ ashtray ambience. (The areas also usually lack the traffic chaos so common in the rest of the country). 

More importantly, Dung is a long-time admirer of Korea’s chaebol system of conglomerates and has hoped to model Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises along the same lines. (This effort, though, has met with varying degrees of success, with many companies including the doomed Vinashin becoming involved in businesses hugely unsuited to them, such as hotels). 

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Vietnam has also become an important country in Korea’s bride trade—both legal and illegal. These days, many children are growing up bi-lingual in what was once a near-totally homogenous country, with remittances from these families overseas often being sent back to their poorer relatives in Vietnam. 

And, as in the rest of South-east Asia, Hallyu is popular in Vietnam. Korean Pop star Rain’s concert four years ago, for example, drew unprecedented crowds, while Korean romantic comedies attract far larger audiences than the Vietnamese films on offer. 

‘Since 1992, Vietnam has welcomed and encouraged South Korean investment,’ Thayer says. ‘South Korea has been designated a strategic partner alongside Japan—Hyundai is the core of Vietnam’s shipbuilding industry at Van Phong Bay and can be expected to play a greater role in Vietnam in future.’

He adds: ‘South Korea is seen by Vietnam as another ally in balancing Vietnam’s relations with all-powerful China.’

And what about Seoul’s reclusive neighbour, North Korea? Well, there’s also some mutual interest between Pyongyang and Hanoi, analysts say.

For a start, fellow communist country Vietnam’s booming economy hasn’t gone unnoticed in Pyongyang, which is interested in Vietnam’s economic reform model. In addition, North Korea sends students to Vietnamese universities, and there’s also an outlet of the ‘Pyongyang’ chain of restaurants in Hanoi (staffed typically by unusually tall, pale women who double as waitress and entertainment, singing happy songs about their nation, and food).

So what’s behind all this diplomatic activity? With its powerful and increasingly assertive neighbour to the north, Vietnam’s moves are perhaps inevitably seen by many as aimed solely at containing China and securing support over territorial disputes. But despite recent concerns about government management of the economy, foreign investment in Vietnam has been rising as some nations look to it as an alternative manufacturing hub to China, with its lower costs and wages.

Even with a careful eye on China, it seems, Vietnam may well be able to afford to have the other one on the bigger international role that many see it as also craving.