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Supply chain hotspot Vietnam welcomed Putin, putting the US on edge

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Vietnam’s President To Lam.
Kristina Kormilitsyna/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters

  • Russian President Putin visited Vietnam, where the two countries signed a dozen agreements this week.
  • Vietnam’s warm welcome of Putin isn’t a good look for the US after Washington and Hanoi elevated ties in 2023.
  • Vietnam’s relationship with Russia dates back to the Soviet era and holds sentimental value.

Wanted by the International Criminal Court, Russian President Vladimir Putin still traveled to Vietnam on a two-day visit, where he was warmly welcomed.

On Thursday, the Russian leader wrapped up his trip to Vietnam. The two countries inked about a dozen cooperation agreements covering a range of subjects, including education and plans for a nuclear science and technology center.

Vietnam is not a member of the ICC, so Putin was safe there. Russia and Vietnam also have a long history going back to the Soviet era, so his visit is also not surprising.

However, Putin’s quick trip — which came less than a year after the US upgraded its ties with Vietnam — isn’t a good look for Washington or the West, which have imposed sweeping restrictions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Vietnam is a strategic partner for US and its allies

The US is among Vietnam’s largest trading partners, accounting for trade worth $111 billion last year. Russia’s trade with Vietnam over the same period was just worth $3.6 billion.

Australia and Japan have also elevated their relationships with Vietnam over the past year, underscoring the Southeast Asian nation’s strategic role in a changing geopolitical landscape.

Putin’s visit could jeopardize these newly-forged partnerships because the optics are so stark, wrote Hoang Thi Ha, a senior fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, on Wednesday.

Western allies may rethink “Vietnam’s reliability as a strategic partner in the region,” Hoang wrote.

“While Vietnam is not directly aiding Russia’s war efforts, its warm reception of Putin could be perceived as ending foreign legitimacy to his regime and undermining US-led international efforts to oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine,” wrote Hoang, who is also a co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS.

Vietnam is a manufacturing hotspot for many multinational companies diversifying their operations outside China — the world’s factory floor for the last 40 years — to diversify their supply chain risks.

The US is playing it cool — but really isn’t

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen played it cool, saying on Thursday that America’s elevated relationship with Vietnam doesn’t mean Hanoi has to break up with Moscow or Beijing.

“Vietnam has a policy and strategy of working collaboratively with many different countries, and it is not a condition of our partnership that they sever their ties to Russia or to China,” Yellen told a news conference in Atlanta.

Still, the US embassy in Vietnam issued a sharp criticism of the visit, saying that “no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities.”

Hot on the heels of Putin’s trip, Washington is sending Daniel Kritenbrink, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, to Vietnam, the State Department said on Thursday.

Kritenbrink will meet senior Vietnamese officials on Friday and Saturday to underscore “strong US commitment” to Washington and Hanoi’s strategic partnership, said the State Department.

Hanoi’s sentimental attachment to the past influences pragmatism

While Hanoi has a much-touted “bamboo diplomacy” policy of flexibility and balanced relations with diverse powers, it is still attached to its past.

This sentimentalism can influence the pragmatism that marked Hanoi’s foreign policy for the last two decades, wrote Hoang at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

It’s also a smart political move, as a segment of Vietnamese still holds “a deep fondness for Russia,” wrote Hoang.

“Many still feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union and grateful for its support to Vietnam during the wars against the French and Americans,” Hoang added. “Some are extremely enamored with Putin as an anti-Western symbol and a strongman leader, a phenomenon coined locally as ‘Putin-mania.’

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