It’s a well-established fact that when two states are determined engage in defense and security cooperation in a bilateral format, they must enjoy sound relations before even thinking about such an undertaking. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) is traditionally one of the oldest and most reliable partners of the Russian Federation, as the military cooperation between Moscow and Hanoi is decades old.
During the Vietnam War of 1957-1975 the USSR would a wide spectrum of assistance to Vietnamese communists, making a significant contribution to their victory over invading American forces. Once this victory was achieved, both states enjoyed warm bilateral relations until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The state that emerged in its place and inherited its legacy and its debts was the Russian Federation. It would continue in maintaining its ties with Vietnam. Part of these ties remains military cooperation as a pivotal component of the Russian-Vietnamese friendship. Vietnamese officers receive military training in Russia, while the Vietnamese armed forces receive Russian military equipment. Vietnam is one of the largest, oldest and most reliable importers of Russian weapons. For example, the Vietnamese Air Force is flying Russia’s aircraft almost exclusively. According to some media reports, Soviet MiG-21 and SU-22 fighters are still in service, and since the beginning of the 2000s, Vietnam has been actively purchasing modern Russian SU-30MK2.
Further still, these days the defense cooperation between Russia and Vietnam undergoes a constant process of rejuvenation. Firstly, this fact can be attributed to the general strengthening of Russian-Vietnamese relations, which required an extensive amount of effort being invested by both states. Additionally, one cannot help but notice the growing tensions between Vietnam and China, two nations that remain unable to resolve territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. The situation around those islands remains rather stable, but in order to better defend its position Vietnam needs to show its regional partners that it is a capable state. At the same time, Hanoi remains fairly concerned over the situation regarding North Korea and the constant growth of terrorist threat across Southeast Asia. So it’s logical when a state is presented with a list of such security challenges, it needs to ensure that it’s on the same foot with its most reliable partner.
In 2016, Vietnam began operating six Russian submarines, while various media sources continue running reports that Hanoi is planning to acquire a number of Russian conventional warships.
Last year’s visit of the Vietnamese President Chiang Dai Kuang to Russia was designed to allow him to hold prolonged negotiations with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, resulting in a total of 20 investment contracts being signed with a total worth of 10 billion dollars. The Vietnamese and Russian leaders declared common views on security issues in the APR and their adherence to the UN Charter. Soon after the visit of the Vietnamese leader to Russia, the SRV made an order for the purchase of 64 Russian tanks.
Additionally, at the very beginning of this year Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, arrived to Hanoi in order to enjoy a two week long stay. During this visit he met with President Chiang Dai Kuang along with his Vietnamese counterpart Ngô Xuân Lịch. It was reported that the sides discussed various issues of cooperation in various military areas. Among them was the question of acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-air systems that, according to Shoigu, still possess unsurpassed capabilities, which were displayed by their recent deployment in Syria.
When describing the ongoing cooperation between Russia and Vietnam, Shoigu would note that it is strategic in its nature as it remains Russia’s top priority to maintain close ties with Vietnam, adding that Vietnam is one of Moscow’s most important security partners in the Asia-Pacific region (APR).
It is reported that a comprehensive plan that would allow the two states to further expand military cooperation has already been drafted for the years 2018-2020. It provides a list of various activities, including joint military exercises. According to Russia’s Defense minister, Russian armed forces are prepared to share their experience of testing even the most advance military equipment in combat conditions. It is expected that the document will be signed in the near future. Further still, this year will be marked by yet another high-profile Russian-Vietnamese meeting.
Futher development of the ongoing cooperation between Moscow and Hanoi will bring a drastic change to the situation in Southeast Asia, as it’s been announced two years ago that Russia was thinking about the possibility of rebuilding the former Soviet naval base in Vietnam.
It should be recalled that back in 1979 the USSR received the right to freely use the base near Cam Ran for 25 years free of charge. It ceased operations in 2002, when the Russian side decided not to renew its lease. However things have changed since then, which is why a Russian-Vietnamese agreement signed in 2003 allowed both states to use the joint base in Cam Ran for the repair of submarines. In November 2014, the two countries signed an agreement on a simplified procedure for the entry of Russian naval vessels to Cam Ran. The ships of the Pacific Fleet of the Russian Federation make regular official and unofficial visits to Vietnam. Now the question of granting the ships of the Vietnamese Navy the right to make to visit the Russian port of Vladivostok freely is being discussed.
There’s no details about the possibility of negotiations on the reconstruction of the Russian military base in Vietnam. However, the above mentioned agreements can be considered a step towards such negotiations. The return of Russian armed forces to Vietnam would be beneficial for the Russian Federation, which wants to increase its influence in the APR. In addition, Russia’s military presence could help stabilize regional tensions that have been growing. The APR has become a zone of political rivalry between a number of states. This notion is usually examined through the prism of the struggle for regional dominance between the US and China. However, Beijing has a long list of ongoing territorial disputes with India, Japan and a number of ASEAN countries. Moreover, there’s been a surge of Islamist militant activities in both Myanmar and Thailand. Against this background it is possible that a fully operational Russian military base in Vietnam may allow regional players to counter balance the influence exploited by other extra-regional players, namely the United States.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”