Putin’s Next Stop: Communist Vietnam, Which Takes a Different Tack, To Put It Mildly, Than North Korea

Vietnam grows nervous over its relations with the democratic capitalistic state of America, its biggest trading partner.

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko
President Putin arrives to give his state-of-the-nation address at Moscow, February 29, 2024. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

President Putin, fresh from visiting America’s bitter historic enemy North Korea, is visiting the capital of another old-time American foe, Vietnam.

At Hanoi, where Mr. Putin flies from Pyongyang, he’s getting  a considerably different reception from the one he’s got from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who’s agreed to provide everything the Russians want by way of artillery shells and other munitions for the war in Ukraine.

Vietnam’s Communist Party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, is extending a most cordial welcome to the leader of a country that supported Hanoi in its long war with the Americans and their ally, the Republic of Vietnam, but communist Vietnam won’t be selling arms to Moscow or expecting advanced technological support for missiles and satellites. 

More modestly, Vietnam has agreed to receive Mr. Putin in appreciation for Hanoi’s long standing relationship with Moscow, dating from before the fall of the Communist regime of the old Soviet Union, and also perhaps to strike a deal for importing Russian weapons – and oil and natural gas.

Whatever the benefits for Vietnam, however, Washington is clearly disappointed that Hanoi should be receiving Mr. Putin at all nine months after President Biden touched down on a visit that showed the warmth of the Vietnam-American relationship decades after the depths of the Vietnam War that ended with Hanoi’s conquest of the free country in 1975.

No, Secretary Blinken isn’t criticizing Mr. Putin’s visit to Hanoi visit as he did his stop in Pyongyang, which he said showed Russia’s desire “to develop and to strengthen relations with countries that can provide it with what it needs to continue the war of aggression that it started against Ukraine.”

On a distinctly lower key, the American embassy at Hanoi put out a statement warning that Mr. Putin’s visit “could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law.” As noted by the Vietnam press, the International Criminal Court at the Hague, of which neither Moscow nor Washington are members, wants him arrested.

Unlike North Korea, Vietnam, not wanting to upset America, its biggest trading partner, faces delicate issues in dealing with Mr. Putin. The visit “could even be seen as risky for Hanoi,” said the Voice of America, an arm of the American government whose programs reach a wide audience in Asia.

VOA quoted a professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Alexander Vuying, as warning that hosting Mr. Putin in a trip “that brings him to North Korea is bad optics for Hanoi and will bring some risks.“ The result, he said, is that Vietnam might be “less trustful in the eyes of the West, Japan and South Korea” even as “Hanoi would gain more trust in the eyes of Russia.”

A research scholar at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute think tank in Singapore, Hoang Thi Ha, asked the key question, “What does Hanoi stand to gain from welcoming Putin?” She cited a survey ranking Russia “near the bottom in terms of strategic relevance to ASEAN,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Russian propaganda,” he said, “will likely tout this visit as a diplomatic victory over the U.S., to signal that Vietnam has not completely gone over to its side” while Washington “views Hanoi as a priority Southeast Asian partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Vietnam, however, is greeting Mr. Putin with the kind of enthusiasm that might be expected for the leader of its old-time ally. The official Vietnam News Agency quoted scholars as predicting his visit will “create a momentum for the bilateral ties to develop to a new height.”

VNA quoted the president of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations as citing the “many achievements” of Vietnam and Russia “in their partnership in all fields from politics, diplomacy and defense-security to economy-trade-investment, science-technology, education, and especially people-to-people diplomacy.” The article contained not a word about the Vietnam War.

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