Vietnam-Russia Relations After 2022: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities of “Bamboo Diplomacy” in A Multipolar World

Nguyen Ba Hai and Kazushige Kobayashi

June 24, 2024
Vietnam’s Growing Presence in Global Affairs

When Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Hanoi on 20 June 2024, Vietnam became the first Southeast Asian nation since February 2022 to welcome the Russian leader for an official state visit. This visit follows the earlier visits by American President Joe Biden (September 2023) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (December 2023), making Vietnam the epitome of multi-aligned foreign policy that has received the Russian, Chinese, and American leaders in less than a year.

Vietnam is an important case in exploring Russia’s engagement with the Global South for several reasons. First, as Hanoi strives to engage with all great powers while at the same time maintaining its commitment to the principles of independence, neutrality, and non-alignment, the case of Vietnam offers unique insights into the dynamics of multi-aligned foreign policy. Second, Vietnam is a rising economic star that has undergone a phenomenal transformation from one of the poorest nations in Asia to a vibrant commercial hub, with a growing population (currently around 98 million) that is larger than that of Germany. Finally, Vietnam has also strengthened its multilateral engagement in and beyond Asia. With its growing economic presence, Hanoi is a key player in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional market while it also concluded a free trade agreement (FTA) and an investment protection agreement with the European Union (EU) in 2019. More importantly, Vietnam was the first ASEAN member to conclude an FTA with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2015. The Vietnamese case hence demonstrates that Vietnam-Russia relations are embedded within the larger context of multilateral economic interactions involving the EAEU and ASEAN.

Political and Military Relations

Since 2022, Vietnam has sought to maintain a functional bilateral relationship with Russia while at the same time deepening its ties with the United States (US) and its Western allies. Such a delicate diplomatic balancing act has been guided by the principle of “bamboo diplomacy” – a term coined by Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who emphasized the importance of maintaining core foreign policy objectives while being open to flexible tactics in the pursuit of these goals. In the face of a rising China, for example, Hanoi chose not to dwell on the historical grievances stemming from the horrific deaths and destruction brought by the Vietnam War and pragmatically sought to cultivate a new partnership with the US.

Since 2022, Hanoi has sought to chart a neutral path between competing great powers and abstained from voting in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions related to Ukraine. The only exception to this pattern was Hanoi’s casting of a vote against the UNGA Resolution to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council. This stance of refusing to take sides in entangling global conflicts is in line with the “Four No’s” principles of national defense policy articulated in Vietnam’s 2019 National Defense White Paper: namely, no alliances, no siding with one state against another, no foreign military bases, and no use of force to pursue foreign policy goals.

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union emerged as Vietnam’s key military and economic partner, and this time-tested partnership extended well beyond the end of the Cold War and through the recent global turbulence since 2022. According to SIPRI data, Russia provided approximately 81 percent of Vietnam’s arms imports between 1995 and 2023. The largest spike in Vietnamese import of Russian arms was registered in the period between 2011 and 2016 when the diplomatic tensions between Hanoi and Beijing heightened over the disputed waters in the South China Sea. Yet, given the deepening relationship between Russia and China in the 2010s, Vietnam also sought to diversify its circle of defense partners and signed a Comprehensive Partnership with the US in 2013. In September 2023, US President Joe Biden visited Hanoi to elevate the existing arrangement to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), with a shared vision to further develop bilateral security ties. In this vein, Vietnam’s strategic positioning appears to be similar to that of India, which seeks to constrain China’s regional ambitions by maintaining collaborative ties with both Russia and the US.

Though the launch of the CSP is hailed as the dawn of a new era in Vietnam-US relations, Moscow remains Hanoi’s main arms supplier. Given that Russian weapons are more price-competitive than their American alternatives, the US is unlikely to replace Russia’s predominant position in Vietnam’s arms market any time soon. Even after the imposition of Western sanctions, Vietnamese-Russian security cooperation remains resilient. In 2023, for example, Hanoi and Moscow jointly reaffirmed their commitment to further develop bilateral defense cooperation programs and hosted several key events such as the Vietnam-Russia Defense and Security Strategy Dialogue. The New York Times alleged that Vietnam was not fully complying with the restrictions imposed by Western sanctions and seeking to maintain and expand military cooperation with Russia. On 20 June 2024, Hanoi and Moscow further reinforced their bilateral ties by signing more than twelve new agreements. In the years to come, it is expected that the safeguarding of Vietnam’s national interests will continue to take priority as Hanoi seeks to navigate, maintain, and balance its security partnerships with competing great powers.

Economic Relations

Western sanctions after the 2014 Crimean crisis prompted Russia to reorient its foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific and other regions. In this context, Vietnamese-Russian trade volume grew rapidly in the 2010s. Furthermore, Western inaction during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the expansion of economic ties between Vietnam and Russia, particularly in the health sector. While Hanoi’s plea for vaccines went largely unanswered by the West, the Russian government and Russian private companies supported Vietnam during the global pandemic by gifting more than 130,000 doses of Sputnik V and Sputnik Light vaccines. Vietnam’s state pharmaceutical companies also developed partnerships with the Russian Direct Investment Fund in order to accelerate vaccine importation and technology transfer for domestic vaccine production. Despite the global logistical disruptions prompted by the COVID crisis, total bilateral trade between Vietnam and Russia reached an unprecedented level in 2021 (see Figure 1 below).

As noted above, it is worth highlighting that Vietnam was the first (and so far, the only) ASEAN member state that concluded an FTA with the Russia-led EAEU in 2015. Accordingly, the trade tariffs between Vietnam and EAEU member states have seen significant reductions in the past years, prompting the further expansion of bilateral trade between Vietnam and Russia. At the 2021 Eastern Economic Forum, the Vietnamese Minister of Industry and Trade Nguyen Hong Dien noted that Vietnam served as a connecting bridge that could enable Russia to access the booming ASEAN market and expressed his support for developing an EAEU-ASEAN multilateral free trade zone. Though this vision has not yet come to fruition, Russia and ASEAN finalized the Comprehensive Plan of Action to Implement ASEAN-Russia Strategic Partnership 2021-2025 in 2021.

Figure 1. Bilateral Trade Between Vietnam and Russia, 2020-2023 (Billions USD). Source: Created by authors with the data from the General Statistics Office of Vietnam

The steady expansion of Vietnam-Russia economic relations was disrupted by the imposition of Western sanctions against Russia in 2022. As shown in Figure 1, bilateral trade volume plunged significantly in 2022, with Vietnam’s exports to Russia registering a nearly 50 percent decrease. Russian officials noted that this was due to the logistical, payment, and investment issues prompted by the wide-ranging Western sanctions designed to restrict Russia’s economic interactions with the outside world.

Since 2022, the Vietnamese and Russian governments have taken concerted steps to mitigate the challenges imposed by Western sanctions, with a particular focus on the improvement of logistical arrangements. For instance, Vietnam and Russia opened a direct shipping route from Vietnamese ports to Vladivostok in May 2022 while the Russian transport company TransContainer launched a railway transportation service for consumer goods from Hanoi to Moscow. With the jointly proclaimed goal of raising Vietnamese-Russian trade volumes to US $10 billion by 2025, Hanoi hosted the 24th Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation in April 2023. Vietnamese and Russian participants in the forum discussed potential avenues of continued economic cooperation and signed new agreements on trade, energy, industrial infrastructure, and tourism, though Vietnam has been also careful not to openly breach Western sanctions against Russia since 2022. The recent Vietnam-Russia summit on 20 June 2024 also produced bilateral agreements designed to further expand economic cooperation between the two nations.

Despite these efforts, the latest data from 2023 (shown in Figure 1) appear to suggest that bilateral trade has not recovered from the disruptive effects of Western sanctions: nearly 50 percent of Vietnam’s total exports to Russia vanished. However, it is important to note here that bilateral trade data usually does not take into account indirect trade through transit countries. For example, while Russia’s oil exports to EU member states registered a dramatic decrease in 2022, India’s oil exports to Europe more than doubled between 2022 and 2023. Given that India is a major importer of Russian oil, it is suggested that Russia’s loss of direct oil export to Europe is (at least partially) compensated by its indirect export to Europe via India.

The preliminary trade statistics for the year 2023 suggest that Vietnamese companies might have used similar tactics. For instance, bilateral trade turnover between Vietnam and Kazakhstan dramatically increased by 85.4 percent in 2023. Since Russia and EAEU member states share a common multilateral market, Vietnamese companies might have developed alternative indirect routes to export their products to Russia via these transit countries around Russia. Indeed, Vietnam and Kazakhstan signed twelve new agreements to bolster bilateral relations in August 2023. Further longitudinal research is needed to investigate the extent to which the EAEU’s common market has enabled the Russian economy to enhance its resilience against the disruptive effects of Western sanctions.

Societal Relations

Despite the relative decline of societal ties between Vietnam and Russia after the end of the Cold War, Vietnamese citizens continued to view Russia and President Putin favorably in the 2010s. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey in 2017 showed that 83percent of Vietnamese citizens had favorable views of Russia, while 79 percent of respondents expressed their confidence in President Putin’s ability to make the right decisions in international affairs. Even after February 2022, Vietnamese officials, experts, and media commentators largely refrained from directly criticizing Russia. Existing research shows that the collective memories of the Soviet Union as a main supporter of Vietnam’s independence from Western imperialism continue to underline Russia’s soft power in Vietnam (and in other Southeast Asian nations).
In the 20th century, Hanoi and Moscow maintained close educational ties, and many top Vietnamese leaders (including Ho Chi Minh) were trained in the Soviet Union. Over time, Vietnam and Russia have developed various joint educational cooperation programs led by the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training and the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education as well as the Rossotrudnichestvo. Bilateral education cooperation continued after 2022, with the Russian government allocating 1,000 scholarship positions to attract Vietnamese students. However, among Vietnamese youth, Russia no longer appears to be a popular destination for the pursuit of higher education and vocational training. Official data for the 2019-2020 academic year shows that the majority of 190,000 Vietnamese students studying abroad were enrolled at Western educational institutions in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the US. The number of Vietnamese students studying in Russia as of 2021 remained rather low at around 5,000, with the possibility of further decrease due to the economic and financial restrictions imposed by Western sanctions.

As a part of Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to Moscow in December 2021, Hanoi and Moscow signed the Cultural Cooperation Program between the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Vietnam and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation for the period 2022-2024, envisioning the organization of Vietnam and Russia Cultural Days in both countries. The imposition of Western sanctions since February 2022 seemingly derailed these plans. In 2022, no large-scale Russian cultural event was organized in Vietnam. In 2023, however, bilateral cultural cooperation fully resumed and the Vietnam and Russia Cultural Days were successfully held in Moscow in April and in Hanoi, as well as in Ha Long, in July. In November 2023, the Vietnam-Russia Friendship Association and the Russian Consulate in Da Nang also organized a joint cultural event. Along with the resumption of Vietnam-Russia cultural events, bilateral tourism cooperation also restarted. In August 2023, Vietnam launched a 45-day visa-free visit scheme for Russian citizens and enhanced its tourism cooperation with Russia. In February 2024, Russia’s flagship carrier Aeroflot resumed direct flights from Moscow to Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam was one of the top ten foreign travel destinations for Russian citizens in that month.

Overall, the recent developments noted above suggest that bilateral educational, cultural, and tourism cooperation between Vietnam and Russia has largely gone back to “business as usual” in 2023. Though Vietnamese-Russian societal ties may not be as extensive as they were during the Cold War, shared historical memories appear to serve as an anchor that stabilizes bilateral societal interactions in turbulent times.

Conclusion: Managing the Russia-China-America Triangle?

Despite the relative decline in bilateral trade volume, President Putin’s recent visit to Hanoi and other developments in Vietnam-Russia relations demonstrate that political and societal/cultural ties between the two nations remain resilient. That said, given that Vietnam’s bamboo diplomacy is operating in an increasingly complex terrain of multi-alignment involving Moscow, Beijing, Washington, and others, US foreign policy actions may play a key role in (re)shaping the further evolution of Vietnam-Russia relations in the years to come. Though Vietnam deepened its security ties with the US in recent years, Washington’s divisive rhetoric to define global politics as an epic struggle between Western-style liberal democracies and non-liberal regimes is likely to limit the depth of Vietnam-US relations. Indeed, Vietnam was not included in the US-led Summit for Democracy while several other ASEAN states were invited. Framing the military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine as a binary conflict of “democracy vs autocracy” is also likely to have similar antagonizing effects on a great number of Global South nations that do not subscribe to such a worldview. Most recently, Vietnam sent its Deputy Foreign Minister to the BRICS Foreign Ministers meeting held in Nizhny Novgorod on 10-11 June but it did not participate in the Western-backed Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland.

In the wake of the growing bilateral and multilateral ties between Vietnam and Russia, American policymakers face a fundamental foreign policy dilemma. When Washington rebukes Vietnam’s deepening relationship with Russia, as it did in the face of President Putin’s recent visit to Hanoi, it may provoke resentment from Vietnamese policymakers who value the principle of autonomy and push them closer to Russia or China. If Washington remains silent, however, American acquiescence may inspire other Global South nations to defy Western wishes and pursue similar multi-alignment strategies. In this light, further research is needed to explore the dynamics of multi-alignment and their implications for US foreign policy in the post-Western world.
  • Nguyen Ba Hai

    The College of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan
  • Kazushige Kobayashi

    Associate Professor at the College and Graduate School of International Relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, the Russia Program at GW
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