Navigating the Intricacies of Being a Regional Middle Power: Deciphering Putin’s Visit to Vietnam

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam on June 19, 2024. Putin’s visit to Hanoi came after he visited North Korea on June 18. Looking at the timing of the visit is crucial. Firstly, just few days prior to Putin’s visit to North Korea, the G-7 Summit was held in Italy on June 13-15, 2024. Second, this visit has also come at a time when Russia is facing economic and military sanctions imposed by the US which has resulted in diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia. Third after China, Russia is the second country with whom Vietnam has signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2012. Fourthly, June 16, 2024 marked the 30th anniversary of the implementation of the Russian-Vietnamese Treaty on Principle of Friendly Relations. 

The former Soviet Union and Vietnam have shared a cordial relation during the Cold War. To put in lucid terms, Vietnam was dependent on military, economic and diplomatic assistance from the Soviet Union during the war against the French rule in the 1950s, American invasion in the 1960s and Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia in late 1970s-80s. In short, Vietnam has legacy of dependence on Russia. Vietnam’s adoption of Doi Moi in the 1986 made a pathway for domestic economic reforms and diversification of diplomatic relations with other countries, thereby reducing traditional dependence on Russia. Additionally with the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 1991 (led to the formal end of the Cambodian War) and the formal membership of Vietnam in ASEAN in 1995, acted as major enablers both in the diversification of diplomatic relations with other countries and also to enhance its presence in regional and global multilateral institutions. 

In the present context of Vietnam-Russia relations, its economic relations have staggered. Russia does not even count among the top ten trading partners of Vietnam. Also, due to ongoing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s arms transfer to Vietnam has also steadily decreased. According to SIPRI, in 2019 Vietnam had ordered twelve Yak 130 aircraft from Russia which was delivered in 2022. No arms deal between the two countries took place after 2022. 

Over the years Vietnam has diversified its defence cooperation with other countries, this has empowered Vietnam to procure arms and technology from friendly countries. However, the question is why Russia’s presence still matters for Vietnam? Russia has vital interest in the oil exploration in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea (SCS). Currently, two Russian-state owned companies Zarubezhneft and Gazprom are involved in oil exploration in Vietnam’s EEZ. The presence of Russia in Vietnam’s vicinity, gives Hanoi some kind of assurance against the growing disruptive activities of China on the basis of maritime claims made on the basis of Nine Dash Line. However, in recent times, the world has witnessed growing bonhomie between Moscow and Beijing especially following the onset of the Ukraine-Russia war. It would be a mistake to consider Russia’s presence in Vietnam’s EEZ as a security guarantor against Beijing’s unilateral assertive actions and intimidation tactics in the Paracels and Spratly Islands in the SCS; where Vietnam has huge energy stakes. The strength of Vietnam and Russia will be determined by how they maintain their bilateral relations and continue their energy cooperation irrespective of continuing China’s threat. 

In addition, Vietnam is known for its multidirectional ‘bamboo diplomacy’ which acts as a means to preserve strategic autonomy, independence and territorial integrity and it will continue to deal with all countries and at time irrespective of their threats. As the term bamboo diplomacy denotes to combination of flexibility in tactics and firmness in principles, Vietnam has been cautiously engaging with the great powers and emerging powers. In 2023, the US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hanoi on Sept. 10 and Dec. 13 respectively. 

The changing global order into multipolarity and multiplexity are accompanied by complex interdependence among various nations. The liquidation of the traditional West-centric power structure with the rise of non-traditional non-western powers from the Indo-Pacific region; is the new normal. However, given the post-pandemic recovery, climate change and geopolitical crisis; the Vietnamese government has continued to maintain traditional ties with China and Russia as well as forged strong relations with a mix of powers like Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and the US.  According to the Vietnam Defence White Paper of 2019, its independent and non-aligned foreign policy is reflected in its ‘Four Noes Policy’, namely no military alliance with a foreign country, no alignment with one country against another, no foreign bases on Vietnamese territory and no use of force or threats in external relations. Furthermore, the robustness of Hanoi’s diplomatic engagement with regional and external powers also stems from its position as regional middle power. According to the Asia Power Index of 2023 by Lowy Institute, Vietnam is a middle power country and came second after Indonesia in terms of diplomatic influence in the Southeast Asian region. The country’s rise to become a regional middle power is significantly influenced by a range of factors such as: the geographical proximity to influential states, the ability to take leverage of changing geopolitical environment and the legacy of its historical past. However, a set of dilemmas usually dictates the foreign policy choices of a middle power. Explicit balancing against and bandwagoning with any of the great powers, is diplomatically a non-feasible option for a middle power. Hedging strategy acts like a rescue for a middle power. 

In this case, the recent visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Vietnam cannot lead to alteration of neither Vietnam’s foreign policy calculus nor its strategic choices. Vietnam is well-aware of the US tightening economic sanctions over Russia. The prospects of robust engagement with Russia are dim. Nevertheless, for a regional middle power like Vietnam, cautious engagement with external player like Russia; is a key to maintain its diplomatic and strategic autonomy in the longer run.

[Photo by Kristina Kormilitsyna / kremlin.ru]

Shruti Dey is a research scholar from the Department of Politics and International Studies at Pondicherry University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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