Putin’s Vietnam visit challenges US influence in Southeast Asia

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Vladimir Putin, Vietnam, Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent Eastern tour, including a significant stop in Hanoi, Vietnam, has sent ripples through international diplomatic circles. This visit, Putin’s first to Vietnam since 2017 and his fifth overall, underscores the enduring strength of Russia-Vietnam relations. It comes at a time when the United States, having elevated its relationship with Vietnam to a comprehensive strategic partnership just last year, finds itself increasingly concerned. As Washington watches with apprehension, it becomes clear that its influence over Vietnam and other small- and medium-sized countries is more limited than it might have anticipated.

A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Vietnam articulated the American government’s dissatisfaction, telling Reuters, “No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression.” The spokesperson added, “If he is able to travel freely, it could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law.” This statement highlights Washington’s broader strategic concerns, particularly in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In an immediate response to Putin’s visit, Washington announced that Daniel Kritenbrink, its top diplomat for East Asia, would visit Vietnam to reaffirm America’s commitment to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. This move underscores the urgency with which the US views the strengthening of Russia-Vietnam ties and its potential implications for US interests in Southeast Asia.

Washington’s frustration appears to stem from several key misjudgments. The first is its misunderstanding of Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy.” Since the 1980s, Vietnam has adhered to a policy of multilateral and diverse diplomacy, seeking to maintain balanced and friendly relations with all major world powers. This approach, rooted in flexibility yet grounded in solid principles, has been a cornerstone of Vietnam’s foreign policy. Hanoi’s strategic aim is to avoid over-reliance on any single major power, which it views as potentially harmful to its national interests.

Under the leadership of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy” has been actively promoted. This policy facilitates the establishment of comprehensive strategic partnerships with major global players such as China, the US, Japan, Russia, and India. Strengthening ties with Russia is a logical extension of this strategy, reflecting Vietnam’s sovereign right to pursue a diversified foreign policy. Any interference by the US or other nations in this regard is seen as unwarranted and counterproductive.

The second misjudgment lies in underestimating the deep historical ties and the breadth of cooperation between Russia and Vietnam. During the Cold War, Vietnam enjoyed robust political, economic, and military support from the Soviet Union. This relationship has continued post-Cold War, with Russia maintaining its status as a key supplier of military equipment to Vietnam. Despite efforts by the Vietnamese People’s Army to diversify its sources of weaponry, a significant portion of its arsenal remains Russian-made.

Furthermore, Vietnam is an important partner of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a bloc championed by Russia. Since signing a free trade agreement with the EAEU in 2015, Vietnam has seen substantial growth in trade, investment, technology, and energy cooperation with Russia. The recent visit witnessed the signing of 11 cooperation documents, signaling the depth and potential for future growth in bilateral relations. While the US has become Vietnam’s top export destination, this economic relationship does not diminish the strategic and historical significance of Vietnam’s ties with Russia.

The third and perhaps most significant misjudgment is the overestimation of US influence over Vietnam and other small- and medium-sized nations. The US, despite its status as the world’s sole superpower, cannot overlook the core interests and concerns of these countries. Vietnam, in particular, remains wary of external interference in its internal affairs, especially under the guise of promoting human rights, democracy, and religion.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has consistently expressed strong dissatisfaction with US statements and actions perceived as meddling. This wariness extends to concerns about efforts to incite “peaceful evolution” within Vietnam. Consequently, while US-Vietnam relations have warmed considerably in recent years, Washington’s ability to dictate Hanoi’s foreign policy remains limited.

This independence was recently illustrated by Vietnam’s diplomatic actions. While Hanoi chose not to attend the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland, it sent a deputy foreign minister to a BRICS meeting in Russia, reflecting its commitment to a balanced foreign policy. Vietnam’s refusal to bow to Western pressure underscores its sovereign approach to international relations.

The continued deepening of US-Vietnam relations faces significant challenges. Washington must navigate these complexities with caution, especially given Vietnam’s strategic role in the US-promoted “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” While the US is unlikely to take severe punitive measures against Vietnam despite its displeasure with Putin’s visit, it must recognize that Vietnam’s foreign policy decisions are driven by its national interests and long-standing diplomatic principles.

Vietnam’s adherence to its multilateral and diverse diplomacy, combined with its historical ties to Russia and its cautious approach to external influence, presents a multifaceted challenge for the US. Washington’s strategy moving forward must account for these factors, acknowledging Vietnam’s autonomy and the broader geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia.

As Russia-Vietnam cooperation continues to advance, Washington’s influence is tested. Understanding and respecting Vietnam’s diplomatic strategy, historical relationships, and core interests will be crucial for the US as it seeks to maintain and strengthen its ties with Hanoi amidst a rapidly evolving international order.

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