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Anton Tsvetov

Expert in the Foreign Policy and Security division at the Center for Strategic Research

Although Moscow's official documents and statements consider Hanoi a key Asian partner, the reality of the bilateral relationship after the breakup of the USSR has actually been inertia, thereby opening opportunities for the U.S.A. and the People's Republic of China (PRC) to gain a strong foothold in Vietnam. With Russia once again intent on achieving a meaningful presence in Asia-Pacific, it appears appropriate to analyze the role of a strategic partnership with Vietnam within Russia’s regional strategy and a rapprochement as such in relation to Chinese and American interests.

Although Moscow's official documents and statements consider Hanoi a key Asian partner, the reality of the bilateral relationship after the breakup of the USSR has actually been inertia, thereby opening opportunities for the U.S.A. and the People's Republic of China (PRC) to gain a strong foothold in Vietnam. With Russia once again intent on achieving a meaningful presence in Asia-Pacific, it appears appropriate to analyze the role of a strategic partnership with Vietnam within Russia’s regional strategy and a rapprochement as such in relation to Chinese and American interests.

Strategic Partnership: Fact or Fiction

Is it really true to claim that the Russian-Vietnamese relationship meets the official criteria of a comprehensive strategic partnership? Since a clear-cut definition of strategic partnership is not available, answering this is tricky. If we take the perspective of Sergey Karaganov, who believes that a "strategic partnership is a fairly meaningless term used to cover any kind of relationship except for open enmity" [1], the correspondence is obvious, as there are absolutely no bad feelings either on the state or the societal level.

Article 87 of the 2013 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation proclaims a pursuit "to consistently strengthen the strategic partnership with Vietnam", thus preserving the special-relationship status established by presidential executive orders from May 2012. At the same time, the document places Vietnam after CIS countries, China, India, both Koreas and Japan, despite the fact that the 2012 policy papers position Vietnam within the three priorities.

Bilateral trade is hardly the yardstick to define the Russia-Vietnam relationship.

In 2010, the Russian-Vietnamese strategic partnership was labeled comprehensive, while Russia's Foreign Policy Concept describes the relationship with the PRC as "comprehensive, equal, confidence-based and strategic interaction", and with India as a "privileged partnership." Such variety appears to indicate the existence of different levels of strategic partnership, with the Vietnamese niche being far from the top. At the same time, there does not seem to be a need to reach for the Chinese or Indian standards, since both Russia and Vietnam lack the willingness and resources to make their strategic relationship privileged or confidence-based.

But if we regard a strategic partnership as a compatibility of basic national interests, similar approaches to most current issues, and interaction in the international arena in their resolution, the match is almost perfect. However, the sides diverge on certain matters, the dispute over the islands in the South China Sea being one of them [2].

A strategic partnership is frequently measured by the volume of trade and the overall level of trade and economic ties. To this end, the Russian-Vietnamese relationship is far from formidable – the current level of three billion USD [3] lags far behind both Russia's trade with China and South Korea, as well as Vietnamese commercial exchanges with China, the U.S.A. or Japan. Bilateral trade is hardly the yardstick to define the Russia-Vietnam relationship.

Nonalignment Revisited?

Russian foreign policy has always prioritized the creation of a positive environment for sustainable economic development. As far as Asia-Pacific is concerned, this means regional security and stability, as well as the incorporation of Russia's eastern territories into the East Asian economic system. The aim appears more tenable if Vietnam becomes an influential regional actor with a relatively independent foreign policy. Both Washington and Beijing would like to see Hanoi as its exclusive partner, while Moscow may help Hanoi become a solid neutral player. A stronger Vietnam in the region and within ASEAN may strengthen this association's strategic stand in the region and drive Southeast Asia toward Indonesia and Vietnam. Accordingly, it would help to more evenly distribute influence within the ASEAN and bring about a new nonaligned bloc supported by Russia.

Viewed through the prism of the evolving U.S.-China confrontation in Asia-Pacific, Russia appears to be the world's largest swing state, with Vietnam playing a similar role in the regional dimension. This makes the two share a common agenda. Within this environment, Vietnam may become the first country to enter the Russian orbit of states that are neither pro-Chinese nor pro-American. If neither the PRC nor the United States dominate in Asia-Pacific, Russia and ASEAN would obviously enjoy greater clout as independent actors.

Moscow may help Hanoi become a solid neutral player. Accordingly, it would help to more evenly distribute influence within the ASEAN and bring about a new nonaligned bloc supported by Russia.

Russia is also vitally interested in sustaining demand for its technologies and products in economic areas where it still has a competitive edge, i.e. the extraction of minerals, nuclear and hydraulic power, space, and military-technical cooperation. In this respect, certain territorial strains in the South China Sea may be helpful, as they fuel Hanoi's interest in Russian military technologies and weapons [4].

At the same time, it is unacceptable to allow the dispute grow into a full-fledged military conflict. Bearing in mind the amount of commodities and goods that annually pass through these waters [5], the disruption of shipping in the Malacca Straits will severely affect the economies of the EU countries, Japan and South Korea, all of them key suppliers to the Russian market. A military clash in the South China Sea would also cause polarization in the region, with countries gravitating either to the United States or China, also to Russia's disadvantage.

The Great China Wall

REUTERS/Kham

Close partnership between Moscow and Beijing is the main hurdle to advancing the Russia-Vietnam relationship. The grand treaty with China of 2001 obliges Russia to respect Chinese territorial integrity, ostensibly threatened by Hanoi. Moreover, Beijing would like to see Vietnam in the wake of its own ascent as a younger brother advancing in step with its superior. However, Vietnam is not exactly eager to become locked in the tight embrace of its northern neighbor. Such consolidation of Chinese political influence in Vietnam will definitely generate a dynamic U.S. response and consequently further polarize the region. At the same time, attempts to strengthen Vietnam's independent policies are sure to annoy Beijing.

To this end, a partnership with Vietnam is intertwined with Russia's overall policies in Asia-Pacific. Russia's return to Asia as a military power, in claiming the classic tough-guy role in the region, is unlikely to improve its image and may only alienate both the PRC and the United States. A more effective way would be through economic engagement, participation in integration processes, and the tackling of common East Asian socio-economic problems. Such activities might contribute much to the economic development of Russia's eastern territories, which have become a key element of Moscow's state-building strategy.

Russia is also vitally interested in sustaining demand for its technologies and products in economic areas where it still has a competitive edge, i.e. the extraction of minerals, nuclear and hydraulic power, space, and military-technical cooperation.

That said, Russia faces acute competition on the Vietnamese market, even in its traditional foreign trade sectors. With regards to nuclear energy, South Korea and the United States are both extremely active [6]. Bearing in mind Hanoi's pragmatism, cooperation is far from likely if Russian products turn noncompetitive.

Another hurdle comes from the incompatible ideologies of the Russian and Vietnamese elites, because Vietnam's ruling Communist Party professes Marxism-Leninism and ideas of Ho Chi Minh. Consequently, the Vietnam-China dialogue is largely governed by interparty relations, and the general secretaries of the two ruling parties are at the same time heads of state. As a result, the top-level, bilateral communications are much wider in scope and more comprehensible for both sides. While the Vietnamese Communist Party maintains links with United Russia, they hardly share views.

Russia Needs a Step Forward

Close partnership between Moscow and Beijing is the main hurdle to advancing the Russia-Vietnam relationship.


RIA Novosti

First of all, a positive relationship with Vietnam requires that Russia clearly emerges as a power positioned between China and the U.S.A. Due to historical reasons and the current difficulties of Vietnam vis-à-vis the United States and China, Hanoi may welcome a force that could support it in the contest for markets in Asia-Pacific. Thus, the Vietnamese card is still valid for Russian diplomacy in the region.

Hanoi also regards Moscow as a card in its dealings with Beijing and Washington. Hence, many publications on Vietnam are chewing over the Cam Ranh Bay and military-technical cooperation. Even so, we must be patient and remember that Hanoi is strictly against any foreign military deployments in its country. Russian warships in Cam Ranh Bay will not bring dividends for Moscow either, since the East China Sea would disconnect them from their main naval group and they would be hardly helpful in advancing Russia's interests. The full-fledged buildup of Pacific Fleet offensive potential will be costly and only buttress the stereotypical perception of Russia as a state with imperial ambitions.

Ample opportunities for growth seem to arise in the modernization of the economies of Russia and Vietnam. Hanoi is placing a high priority on high-tech capabilities, and Russia could offer a reliable pathway to diversification in such sectors in order to alleviate Vietnam's dependence on regional partners, for example on South Korea.

Military-technical cooperation with Vietnam would be quite healthy, although in contrast to India, it would not have a large effect on the Russian defense sector. Hence, more sophisticated weapons for Vietnam should both help win its market and boost Russian manufacturers of military hardware.

Russia's return to Asia as a military power, in claiming the classic tough-guy role in the region, is unlikely to improve its image and may only alienate both the PRC and the United States.

The South China Sea deserves special attention. The PRC is known to oppose the internationalization of disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands and insists on bilateral settlement. Hence, in simplistic terms, we might suppose that Russia should not irritate Beijing by interfering in its Southeast Asian affairs. But outside actors have de facto plunged into the South China Sea situation, with practically no outsider siding with Beijing. China may soon find itself as a besieged fortress, thus making the territorial settlement unlikely any time soon. Russia remains neutral and may emerge in the region as a state with interests in the Southeast Asia, although not in opposition to the PRC. The very presence of a neutral actor interested in the peaceful development of the region may help China feel more assured as far as regional security is concerned.

First of all, a positive relationship with Vietnam requires that Russia clearly emerges as a power positioned between China and the U.S.A.

At the same time, Russia's foreign policy remains committed to the international law that indicates that Beijing's claims on the islands in the South China Sea are insufficiently grounded. Russia should demonstrate that in foreign markets, its companies operate by generally accepted legal rules, and Beijing's declarations cannot prevent Russian oil producers from working offshore in Vietnam. So, in bilateral contacts, it appears practical to push the Chinese leaders towards a clear-cut formulation of the views on the territorial issues, including the Spratly and Paracel islands.

A strategic partner for both China and Vietnam, Russia can demonstrate its interest in maintaining their bilateral relationship as friendly as possible, with a focus on economic matters. Why not offer Hanoi and Beijing a trilateral cooperation project for hydrocarbon survey and production in the South China Sea, proceeding from the immutable fact that Russia has much experience in this area? At the same time, Moscow should doggedly persuade regional leaders, primarily Beijing, that irrespective of developments in the South China Sea, Russia would like to freely operate in the economies of Southeast Asia with no heed to regional bilateral frictions. Russian firms deserve to operate unaffected by political problems that have no relation to the Russian state.

1. S.Karaganov. Postpone the EU Agreement. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 05/16/07 URL: http://www.rg.ru/2007/05/16/karaganov.html

2. Russia will not officially uphold claims of any country on the Spratly and Paracel islands in the belief that the sides should resolve the matter through bilateral talks. Vietnam claims both archipelagos as its property and is eager to find a settlement through the participation of the world community and its prominent organizations.

3. On Current and Future Trade and Economic Cooperation between Vietnam and Russia. URL: http://www.ved.gov.ru/exportcountries/vn/vn_ru_relations/vn_ru_trade/

4. /blogs/dvfu/?id_4=1092

5. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=10671

6. Nuclear Power in Vietnam. URL: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-T-Z/Vietnam/

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