Russia’s policies in Southeast Asia often pass without a great deal of remark. But missing the latest twists and turns in Russia’s relationship with Vietnam risks a failure to grasp key elements of the way in which these two important Asian actors are responding to China’s rising power and to trends in Asian security. Although Sino-Russian ties are deepening, at least in the context of the United States, in Southeast Asia Russia has in fact quietly but openly resisted Chinese encroachments and is forging a deeper military-political relationship with Vietnam.
Beijing has repeatedly demanded that Moscow terminate energy explorations in the South China Sea, clearly responding to Russia’s visibly enhanced interests in the region. In 2012, Russia announced its interest in regaining a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, a step probably connected to joint Russo-Vietnamese energy projects off Vietnam’s coast, and a potential means of checking China. Gazprom also signed a deal to explore two licensed blocks in Vietnam’s continental shelf in the South China Sea, taking a 49% stake in the offshore blocks, which hold an estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than 25 million tons of gas condensate. Those actions precipitated Beijing’s demand that Moscow leave the area. Yet despite its silence, presumably to avoid antagonizing China, Moscow stayed put. Since then it has stepped up support for Vietnam involving energy exploration in the South China Sea and, perhaps more ominously from China’s standpoint, arms sales and defense cooperation.
Russia’s ties to Vietnam are flourishing as Hanoi, clearly aiming to deter the China threat, has become a major customer for Russian weapons, primarily buying submarines and planes. Russia and Vietnam have been “strategic partners” since 2001, a relationship that was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2012. Bilateral trade and scientific-cultural exchanges are growing, with Russia ranking eighteenth among 101 foreign investors in Vietnam, focusing on mining, processing and manufacturing industries (particularly energy). And Russia is helping Vietnam build a nuclear power plant.
But perhaps the most striking and consequential forms of cooperation are military. Vietnam’s Defense minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, recently remarked, “cooperation in the military-technical spheres between the two countries highly contribute towards strengthening the traditional friendship and facilitating the further development of the strategic partnership.”
Apart from the openly expressed interest in using Cam Rah Bay, Russia is helping Vietnam build a submarine base and repair dockyard to provide maintenance support for other naval platforms. The submarine base will host the Kilo-class subs that Vietnam has bought from Russia and will almost certainly be deployed to protect Vietnamese interests in the South China Sea. More recently, both sides have begun discussing a document allowing for regular Russian port visits to Vietnam for maintenance and R&R, although Cam Ranh Bay will not become a Russian base.
Vietnam and Russia also announced a third tranche of the sale of 12 new SU-30MK2 fighter aircraft that can target ships, aerial and ground targets, while Vietnam has also ordered six Varshavyanka-class submarines that represent an improvement on its existing Kilo-class submarines and can conduct anti-submarine, anti-ship, general reconnaissance and patrols in relatively shallow waters like the South China Sea. These sales represent a Vietnamese example of defense modernization to defend against threats to its offshore energy interests, defend its claims in the South China Sea, and deter growing Chinese aggressiveness. In these respects it is doing what other Southeast Asian states are doing to modernize aging defense inventories and defend against new threats.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of these recent arms sales and ministerial talks is the fact that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has approved a draft Russia-Vietnam military cooperation pact that would formalize the two governments’ defense cooperation. Medvedev’s approval orders the Russian Ministry of Defense to discuss the planned accord with the Vietnamese government and authorizes the Russian ministry to sign the agreement on behalf of the Russian government. The planned accord would stipulate exchanges of opinions and information confidence-building measures, cooperate to enhance international security and ensure more effective action against terrorism and better arms control.
Of course, nothing in the bilateral relationship is intended to target a third country, or so they say. But it is clear that this relationship, the high points of which are the new agreement and these arms sales is intended to curb China’s aggressive intentions and behavior in the South China Sea. It is noteworthy that most of these announcements come from the Vietnamese side, which clearly has every reason to display publicly to China its ability to garner support for its military buildup and political resistance to Chinese claims. Thus, Vietnam not only enjoys strong U.S., Russian and Indian diplomatic and military support, it is buying weapons from Russia, Sweden and Israel, among others. Indeed, to strengthen its C4ISR capabilities Vietnam is also investing in powerful foreign C4ISR systems and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to protect its offshore interests and installations.
While Vietnam’s weaving together of a strong military-political web of external support and internal development using foreign and domestic capabilities that have been indigenized is designed to resist China, it is also noteworthy that Rusisa is steadily upgrading its military, economic and political support for Vietnam, despite the burgeoning identity of anti-American interests and cooperation with China. This is clearly part of Moscow’s own “pivot” to Asia, which actually preceded its U.S. namesake and aims to invigorate Moscow’s economic, military and political position as a major, independent Asian power in its own right.
Despite the professed identity of interests with China, Beijing clearly is not happy with these Muscovite policies. In 2012, its media called them “unrighteous” and stressed that Russo-Vietnamese military and energy cooperation allows Vietnam to extend energy exploration into contested areas. Vietnam depends on this cooperation with Russia, so in some sense Russia is culpable. China also correctly accused Russia at that time of seeking a return to Cam Ranh Bay. These developments support the argument put forth by Jeffrey Mankoff that the visible signs of Russo-Chinese amity is something of a façade. He observes:
Moscow touts its partnership with Beijing mostly to prove to the rest of the world that Russia still matters, while China views it as a low-cost way of placating Russia. Lacking much of a common agenda, cooperation is limited to areas where their interests already overlap, like bolstering trade. In the parts of the world that matter most to them, Russia and China are more rivals than allies….Nor does sporadic cooperation between the Russian and Chinese militaries alter the fact that China’s assertiveness worries Russia as least as much as it worries the United States. Russian military commanders acknowledge that they see China as a potential for, even as official statements continue to focus on the alleged that form the United States and NATO. In July 2010, Russia conducted one of its largest ever military exercises, which aimed at defending the sparsely populated Russian Far East from an unnamed opponent with characteristics much like those of he People’s Liberation Army.
If this is indeed the case, Russo-Chinese ties may not be as dangerous for the U.S. as some have feared. Of course, complacency would be ill advised since the two governments will clearly collude to block numerous American initiatives globally. In Asia, though, we might see added jockeying and competition for support and influence, both by major actors like Russia and China as well as by increasingly capable middle powers like Vietnam, something that will only add a further layer of complexity to Asia’s already tangled security agendas.
Dr. Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council.