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Analysts link strengthening Vietnam’s South China Sea claims to Putin visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Vietnam's President To Lam pose for photos at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 20, 2024.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Vietnam's President To Lam pose for photos at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 20, 2024.

Analysts cite an effort to strengthen Vietnam’s South China Sea territorial claims as a key reason Hanoi welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month, despite potential fallout from links to Moscow in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

They also say Russian investment in offshore oil and gas reserves off Vietnam’s coast in the South China shows Hanoi strengthening its territorial claims.

Vietnam and Russia signed 11 agreements during the visit. They included, according to the Kremlin, granting an investment license for a hydrocarbon block off Vietnam’s southeastern coast to Zarubezhneft, a state-owned Russian oil and gas firm with a history of joint ventures with Vietnam.

Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore's ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute, told VOA that Vietnam wants to expand its oil and gas operations with Russia inside its exclusive economic zone for two reasons.

"First, the resources in the fields being worked by Vietsovpetro [a Russian-Vietnamese oil and gas joint venture] are running low and it's time to start operations in new blocks," Storey wrote over email on June 25, referring to an existing oil partnership.

"Second," he wrote, "Vietnam wants to internationalize the energy projects in its EEZ because it adds legitimacy to its jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea."

Storey added that although there have been reports of Hanoi making an arms purchase by using funds from the joint oil enterprise Rusvietpetro, it is unlikely that the leaders settled plans for a weapons sale during the visit.

"While there have been reports that Russia is considering providing loans to Vietnam to buy military hardware using the profits from their joint venture in Siberia, it is unclear whether the two sides have reached a final agreement," Storey wrote. The New York Times reported on a leaked March 2023 document from Vietnam's Finance Ministry that outlined plans for Hanoi to purchase Russian weapons using loans from Rusvietpetro.

"The absence of Russian Defence Minister [Andrei] Belousov from Putin's entourage to Vietnam suggests they have not," he wrote.

Protecting disputed waters

Although Vietnamese territory stretches 370 kilometers off its coast according to international law, China claims the vast majority of the South China Sea with its disputed so-called nine-dash line delineating its claims in the sea.

Ray Powell, director of the Sea Light Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University, wrote over WhatsApp on June 27 that the block licensed to Zarubezhneft "appears to be inside" the nine-dash line.

Nguyen The Phuong, a maritime security expert and Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales Canberra, told VOA during a call on June 26 that the key takeaway from Putin's visit is Hanoi's intention to secure its territorial integrity.

"Vietnam wants Russia to have more presence in the South China Sea because, different from the United States or Western countries, the presence of Russia will not infuriate China," Phuong said. "It could somehow prevent China from going overboard, from being overly aggressive."

Alexander Vuving, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, said it is important for Hanoi to maintain strong ties with Moscow after Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

"The Ukraine war is pushing Russia closer to China, and that is the Vietnamese nightmare," Vuving said during a Zoom call with VOA on June 27, noting that Moscow is Hanoi’s leading partner to counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

"From Vietnam's perspective, they need Russia," he said.

Vietnam is attempting to diversify its military equipment away from Russia, which has been its primary supplier, and it is not clear whether the two sides agreed on an arms sale during this visit. Nevertheless, Russia remains Hanoi's top option to update its aging military arsenal, Vuving said.

"[Vietnam] is still trying to buy arms from Russia for many reasons," he said. "The price is not so high like some other alternative sources but there's also the question of the issue of trust – Vietnam would trust Russia," Vuving said.

That trust comes from a long history of support from the former Soviet Union and later Russia, Nguyen Hong Hai, senior lecturer at Hanoi's Vinuniversity, told VOA. Along with military aid to support Vietnam's fights for independence, the Soviet Union and Russia helped to bring the country out of poverty and most of Vietnam's top leaders trained there, Hai said.

"For the generation who lived during that period of time, they still have very fond memories of the Soviet Union's and Russian assistance to Vietnam," Hai said June 25 by Zoom.

Some see dangers

Even with the historic connection, some point to the dangers of welcoming Putin after the invasion of Ukraine and Putin's visits to China and North Korea.

"This trip was made right after Putin visited [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un. The two most brutal dictators in East Asia," Tran Anh Quan, a Ho Chi Minh City-based social activist wrote to VOA in Vietnamese over Telegram.

"If Putin can link up with Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, and To Lam, it will form an alliance of tyrants of the world's major dictatorial states," Quan said, referring to former public security minister To Lam, who became president in May.

Quan said he has not seen much response from the Vietnamese public to Putin's Hanoi visit.

He said many are afraid to speak out in the current political environment and the public is more focused on the case of Thich Minh Tue – a monk who is not part of a state-sanctioned Buddhist group and became famous for walking barefoot across the country before he was detained by police in early June.

"Vietnam is increasingly suppressing critical voices, so people dare to speak out less than before," Quan said.

Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia expert and professor at the National War College in Washington, also noted the negative image Putin's visit casts, adding that Russia's war on Ukraine highlights the degradation of international laws, crucial to Vietnam, given its territorial tensions with neighboring China.

"The optics of it are terrible," he told VOA on June 17. "This is the leader who is trying to upend the international rules-based order and change borders through the use of force. … The legal rationale that Russia and Putin have come up with for the invasion of Ukraine is really dangerous for Vietnam."

Still, Hai said that although Vietnam and Ukraine are two small nations neighboring larger powers, it is too simplistic to compare the relationships between Vietnam and China with Ukraine and Russia.

"[Vietnam] has coexisted with China for over 4,000 years and understands its neighbor well," he said, while noting the countries continue to have territorial disputes and had a border war in 1979.

"Since normalizing relations in 1991, the two countries have managed their relationship effectively,’’ Hai said. ‘’Both nations aim to avoid conflict."

Further, he added that Hanoi does not "take sides" with Russia, and when leaders express their debt to the Soviet Union, that includes its former republic, Ukraine.

"In the joint statement between Vietnam and Russia during the Putin visit … Vietnam was very careful to show it does not side with Russia," Hai said.

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