Putin’s Trip to Vietnam: The Next Phase of Major Power Competition

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Putin’s Trip to Vietnam: The Next Phase of Major Power Competition

The Russian leader is just the latest major power leader to come to Hanoi bearing gifts and promises.

Putin’s Trip to Vietnam: The Next Phase of Major Power Competition

Russian President Vladimir Putin, second left, shakes hands with Vietnamese officials upon his arrival at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Thursday, June 20, 2024.

Credit: Nikita Orlov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently winding up a two-day visit to Vietnam, during which the two nations celebrated the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Basic Principles of the Vietnam-Russia Relationship. Hanoi and Moscow signed the Treaty in 1994 to replace the 1978 Friendship Treaty after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with that, the Soviet security guarantee to Vietnam. The 1994 Treaty serves as a nonaggression pact, with both Hanoi and Moscow pledging not to enter any agreements with other parties that would hurt the interests of the other side. Contemporary Vietnam-Russia relations are conducted within the purview of the 1994 Treaty. On the eve of the visit, Putin penned a commentary on Vietnam’s Nhan Dan newspaper in which he noted that Vietnam and Russia have similar approaches toward international issues.

However, what makes Putin’s visit significant is not about the celebration of the treaty per se. His visit comes in the aftermath of Vietnam hosting U.S. President Joe Biden in September and Chinese President Xi Jinping in December. Enough has been said about how Putin’s visit fits with Vietnam’s multilateral and neutral foreign policy, and how Russia can help Vietnam modernize and refurbish its Soviet-legacy military arsenal. But there is another aspect that is worth investigating. The fact that the leaders of three major powers have visited Vietnam in a short period is not fully due to Hanoi’s foreign policy adroitness. Not many small powers receive the attention that Vietnam is receiving even though they, too, practice multilateral diplomacy. What is remarkable in Vietnam’s case is that major powers are themselves competing to show Vietnam that they can supply it with security at a time when the country needs it the most.

Whether a state feels secure depends on how much security it demands and how much its partners can supply it. At the moment, Hanoi is looking to (1) protect its regime security; (2) protect its territorial sovereignty; and (3) maintain a peaceful and stable external environment conducive to economic growth. The United States, China, and Russia are seeking to meet Vietnam’s need with their own supply of security with an eye on improving relations with a geographically key country. The United States can assist Vietnam further its second and third security demands, but it cannot do so with respect to regime security. China can help Vietnam with regime security and maintain a stable external environment for Vietnam’s economic growth; still, it cannot fully convince Hanoi of its peaceful intentions. Russia can provide Hanoi with both regime security and territorial security, but its regional focus on Europe and limited military capability in the Asia-Pacific means Russia’s impact in regional matters will be limited.

Each major power thus has tried to convince Vietnam that it can improve on what it lacks. For the United States, Biden’s visit was a conscious attempt to assure Hanoi of its benign intention towards the Communist Party of Vietnam. On the other hand, Xi’s visit and Vietnam joining China’s “community of common destiny” was a Chinese effort to ensure that the maritime disputes in the South China Sea do not damage other aspects of the bilateral relationship. This explains why China has been accepting of Vietnam’s island reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands while reacting with force to the Philippines’ efforts to resupply its outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, a low-tide feature in the Spratlys.

Putin’s visit thus seeks to assure Hanoi that despite the ongoing war in Ukraine and Russia’s growing dependence on China, Russia will not forgo its role in the Asia-Pacific, and that Vietnam remains Russia’s key partner in the region. Putin remarked to Vietnam that both Moscow and Hanoi have similar assessments of the political situation in the Asia-Pacific, and that the two countries support an “equal, non-separatist, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory” new Asia-Europe security order. Vietnam is so important to Russia’s Asia-Pacific policy that Putin thanked Vietnam for its “balanced position” towards “the crisis in Ukraine,” instead of criticizing Hanoi’s neutrality. Vietnam-Russia cooperation over oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea should also continue despite China’s growing maritime assertiveness. The Russian government wants to cooperate with Vietnam to develop the latter’s peaceful use of atomic energy.

Vietnam’s willingness to host Putin despite the U.S. embassy in Hanoi being upset and the perceived affiliation with an axis of resistance with North Korea, Russia, and China due to the Russian president stopping in North Korea before going to Vietnam should not be solely attributed to Hanoi’s friendly sentiment towards Putin or old comradeship between the two countries. If that was the case, Vietnam would not have remained neutral on the Russia-Ukraine War. Vietnam remains a pragmatic player with a conscious cost-benefit analysis. Hanoi wants to internationalize the South China Sea disputes and to involve as many major powers in supplying it with security because no single power can supply it with all the security it needs.

By hosting Putin, Hanoi has more to gain than lose. First, Vietnam sends a signal to Russia that it welcomes Russia’s role in the Asia-Pacific. Engaging Russia under the purview of the 1994 Treaty will ensure that Russia’s growing cooperation with China will not hurt Vietnam’s interests due to the nonaggression pledge. Second, closer cooperation with Russia will not anger China as much as closer cooperation with the United States while doing so still allows Hanoi to assert its maritime sovereignty with Russian help. And finally, if the United States deems Vietnam to be an important enough partner, Putin’s visit should not hurt the overall upward trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam relations just as Vietnam’s abstention in United Nations votes denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine did not stop Biden from visiting  Hanoi. Vietnam is willing to run minor risks in its relationship with the United States in order to keep its Russian option available.

No matter how much Vietnam tries to assert its agency via a multilateral foreign policy, it is still a minor power depending on the balance of force and interest among the major powers for security. The riskiest scenario for Vietnam is one in which it cannot find any suppliers of security, rather than one in which it hosts a controversial leader like Putin. Hanoi’s next test is how to manage the relationships with its American, Chinese, and Russian “security suppliers” so that their competition to supply security complement Hanoi’s freedom of action instead of forcing Vietnam to choose sides.