Putin may visit Vietnam as Hanoi aims to secure power balance

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — Vietnamese officials are hopefully anticipating an unannounced visit to Hanoi by Russian President Vladimir Putin, possibly as early as next week on his way to Beijing for meetings with Chinese leaders.

Experts say such a visit would allow the Russian leader to show that Western efforts to isolate his government over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine have failed, while furthering Hanoi’s efforts to navigate a middle ground between the United States and China.

Vietnam could also be expected to seek an arms deal with its historical ally as its Soviet-era military equipment ages beyond its service life.

During a phone call on March 26, the leader of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam — General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong — extended an invitation to Putin to visit Hanoi. According to state media outlet Vietnam News Agency, “President Putin happily accepted the invitation and agreed for the two sides to arrange [the visit] at a suitable time.”

Ian Storey, fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VOA that the visit could take place this month, when Putin is expected to travel to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Putin confirmed at an April 25 congress of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs that he would visit Beijing sometime in May. He did not provide dates, but Bloomberg quoted unidentified sources saying it would take place on May 15 and 16.

“Putin might use this opportunity to visit Russia’s three closest partners in Asia: China, Vietnam and North Korea,” Storey wrote in an email on April 10. “Putin would use this visit to signal to the world that his government’s ‘Turn to the East’ policy remains on track and that the West has failed to isolate Russia.”

Balancing power

Maintaining a close connection to Moscow is a priority for the Vietnamese leadership as they attempt to balance between the world’s two leading powers, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at Honolulu’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

“Vietnam has to balance its relationship between China and the United States, and it’s like it’s caught between a rock and a hard place,” he told VOA during a Zoom call on April 13.

Vuving said that Beijing is a threat to neighboring Vietnam’s territorial integrity not only as it encroaches into the South China Sea but also as its power grows regionally. While the U.S. is the obvious counterbalance, Washington is seen as a threat to the country’s regime by the ruling Communist Party.

“Russia offers a very good middle ground for Vietnam,” Vuving said. Moscow shares “regime affinity and their leaders still call each other comrades.” Furthermore, Russian enterprises are key partners to Vietnam’s oil and gas ventures in the South China Sea, he said.

Storey said a meeting would be particularly significant after Hanoi upgraded ties with Washington in September 2023 and Xi visited Hanoi in December.

“Putin has been invited to visit Vietnam twice now,” first by President Vo Van Thuong in October 2023 and again in March by Trong, Storey wrote.

“Now that the visits of Presidents [Joe] Biden and Xi have taken place, Vietnam might welcome a visit by Putin for two reasons: First, to demonstrate that it pursues a balanced foreign policy; and second, to show Moscow that despite the war in Ukraine, Russia remains a valuable friend.”

Arms and public perception

Nguyen The Phuong, a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales Canberra, told VOA that an arms deal with Russia may be in the works.

“If Putin visited it will be a very good chance for Vietnam to explore those kinds of possibilities of how they could somehow purchase weapons from Russia,” Phuong said, speaking to VOA on April 8 over Zoom.

Storey wrote that acquiring new fighter jets is a top priority for Vietnam “as its current inventory of Russian-made aircraft is reaching the end of its operational life.”

“We cannot rule out future purchases from Russia,” he said, adding that any discussion of arms deals would be kept tightly under wraps amid sensitivity over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Although Vietnam’s international reputation would be damaged if news of an arms deal with Russia was made public, it would likely be supported by the majority of the Vietnamese public, according to Phuong.

“They would be welcoming of the upcoming visit of Putin,” he said. “The Vietnamese public still has some sense of some support for Russian weapons — it’s a result of a historical narrative and propaganda.”

Still, that support is not universal.

Tran Anh Quan, a Ho Chi Minh City-based social activist, said he has opposed the war on Ukraine since its outset.

“If today I do not oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then later, if China invades my country, who will speak up to support us?” he wrote over the messaging app Telegram in Vietnamese on April 13.

Quan told VOA that he has faced pushback from Vietnamese authorities for his efforts to support Ukraine.

“In March 2022, I created the Vietnamese Stand With Ukraine fanpage to launch a campaign to support the Ukrainian people. Then I printed and sold t-shirts with the slogan Vietnamese Stand With Ukraine to raise money to send to the Ukrainian embassy in Hanoi,” he wrote.

“In October 2022, security from the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security came to my house to arrest me and interrogate me about my pro-Ukraine views. The police told me verbatim that ‘supporting Ukraine is a plot to overthrow the Vietnamese state.'”

In the face of threats, Quan said, he closed his initiative to support Ukraine.

“They threatened to kill me if they met me in Ho Chi Minh City. So I had to close my business to be safe,” he said.

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