Saturday, April 19, 2014

Vietnam and Russia

JUST days after Russia raised hackles in the West by annexing Crimea, Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Rosneft, a Russian oil behemoth, took a trip to Asia. He apparently wanted to show the world that his country—perhaps like Anna Karenina after her scandalous tryst—still has high-powered friends, no matter that she is newly estranged from others. 

Mr Sechin paid calls to a few of the region’s heavyweights: Japan, India and South Korea. On March 22nd he also stopped in Vietnam, whose economy and political muscle are considerably weaker. Earlier in the week, the second of six Russian-built submarines that Vietnam had ordered arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, a naval base where the Soviet Union, and later Russia, maintained an active presence from 1979 to 2002. 

And then on April 16th, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov (in the picture above, to the left), stopped in Hanoi for meetings with Vietnam's president, Truong Tan Sang, and its foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh (to the right). They pledged to deepen bilateral collaborations on energy, defence and security, among other issues.

The choreography of the visits suggests that Vladimir Putin’s government may still look to Vietnam as an important business and strategic partner—or at the very least, as a friend whom it can't afford to snub when passing through the area.

Russian firms do brisk business here. Vietnam spent $714m last year on Russian military kit, making it the fifth-largest buyer of the stuff behind China, India, Venezuela and Indonesia, according to Paul Burton of IHS Jane’s, a London-based consultancy. He estimates that Russian military hardware has accounted for about 90% of Vietnam’s arms purchases since at least 2002.

On the energy front, the Russian firm Rosatom is planning to build, by 2024, Vietnam's first nuclear power plant, even as the Russian gas giant Gazprom searches for hydrocarbons in the South China Sea. Mr Burton says that Vietnam, whose GDP in 2012 was $155.8 billion, probably can't afford to pay cash for all that weaponry; the purchases are likely financed in part through the contracts for natural gas and nuclear power. 

Russia's geostrategic interests in Vietnam, however, are far less wide-ranging today than were, say, the Soviet Union's during the cold war. (Yet Mr Putin found time to visit Hanoi last November, just after the East Asia Summit in Brunei, which he had chosen not to attend.) As a rule, Russia also doesn't take sides on sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Bill Hayton, an author who studies the sea's politics, says Russia has wider interests with both China and America that far outweigh the risks of bolstering anyone’s claims to this or that coral reef.

But if Russia isn't a major player in South-East Asia's security architecture, it isn't entirely deaf to it either. Russian arms sales to the Vietnamese have strengthened Vietnam's hand in a long-running territorial dispute with its neighbour to the north, China, and some of the oil-exploration blocks that Vietnam has awarded to Gazprom lie within the so-called “nine-dashed line” that China draws to mark out its claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. All of that clearly irks the Chinese, though not quite enough, evidently, to stop them from helping Russia defy America routinely at the United Nations. Mr Putin is due to visit China next month in hopes of inking a 30-year deal for natural gas.

Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council, a think-tank in Washington, reckons that although Russia is more interested in North-East Asia than in the South-East, its energy and military deals with Vietnam since 2008 represent an attempt to help establish that the Vietnamese are an independent power in Asia, one that isn’t "tied to China's skirts”. Russia talks of a free-trade agreement that would link it together with Belarus and Kazakhstan, in eastern Europe and Central Asia, along with Vietnam, far away from its eastern borders. Russia also upgraded its existing security partnership with Vietnam in 2012, from standard to “comprehensive”, which may mean that further energy deals and strategic collaborations are in the pipeline.

Yet as Mr Hayton notes, Vietnam is "free and easy" when it comes to doling out partnerships (it already enjoys 11 in the “comprehensive” category). Its strategy has always been to involve as many countries as it can in its diplomatic business. Russian defence officials may speak of re-engaging in Cam Ranh Bay, but their Vietnamese counterparts are careful to say that other allies are welcome in their waters, too. On April 7th, for example, the Vietnamese navy conducted what the American embassy called "naval engagement activity" with the USS John McCain, an American guided-missile destroyer named for the ancestors of a famous man* who flew missions against Vietnam in the cold war.

On the “soft power” front, meanwhile, America is now the cultural beacon for Vietnam's young population that the Soviet Union was a generation ago. In recent months Vietnamese teens chattering away on websites have become fervent about the opening of the country's first McDonald's restaurant, in Ho Chi Minh City. Degrees from American universities are highly coveted by Vietnam's rising middle class, and American pop music—interspersed with K-Pop and a few local hits—blares from cafes in the major cities. 

By contrast, the only people who seem to speak Russian here are greying Vietnamese who once studied in the Soviet bloc, along with the Russian sun-worshippers who flock to southern Vietnam’s beaches. In downtown Hanoi, the clearest visual illustration of Russian culture may be "Kremlin”, a narrow shop selling Russian fish, vodka and dusty matryoshka dolls. And in a neighbourhood for wealthy Vietnamese and well-heeled expatriates, the closest thing to a proper Russian restaurant is one that actually serves Ukrainian food. The Economist


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