Military analysts say Vietnam is desperate for a new generation of powerful fighter jets and other arms, and recent news reports indicate the country could be seeking them from both the United States and Russia, although no details can be confirmed.
Reuters reported Saturday that the Biden administration is in talks with Vietnam over an agreement for the largest transfer of arms between the two countries, including F-16 fighter jets. The report says the deal is still in its early stages and may not come together. But it was a key topic of recent Vietnamese-U.S. Talks in Hanoi, New York and Washington over the past month, according to Reuters.
The White House declined comment on the matter.
A few weeks ago, before President Joe Biden visited Vietnam and upgraded the two country’s relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the New York Times reported that Vietnam’s military was pursuing a secret Russian arms deal that would violate U.S. sanctions on Moscow.
Since the release of the report, U.S. and Vietnamese officials have declined to discuss the issue.
The deal was outlined in a March 2023 document from Vietnam's Ministry of Finance and has been verified by former and current Vietnamese officials, according to the Times report. The Times report contends that Hanoi plans to fund defense purchases by shifting $8 billion over 20 years to Vietsovpetro – a joint oil venture in Siberia.
Although experts say the Times report is well-founded, it is unclear whether it will go through and how it could affect Hanoi's standing with Western partners, particularly the United States.
"I do believe the NYT story has credence … If true, the report highlights that Vietnam still views Russia as an important defense cooperation partner," wrote senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Ian Storey over email.
"We do not yet know if the Vietnamese government has decided to follow through on the deal," he wrote.
Nguyen The Phuong, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales who specializes in Vietnam's defense and maritime security, told VOA he first heard about a potential arms deal with Russia in June. Although he said he had not seen the leaked Finance Ministry document, he has seen a letter of intention from Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to his Russian counterpart to pursue an arms purchase.
"There's a letter of intention from the Vietnamese prime minister to push that plan," Phuong said of the arms deal. "It's become more and more clear about the intention of the Vietnamese to move forward with that plan."
Even as defense purchases from Russia become riskier, the secret arms deal would make a certain kind of sense for Hanoi, experts said.
"The military is the most pro-Russian and anti-Western among all the national institutions in Vietnam," said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
"The leaders in the Ministry of Defense are still embracing Russia," he said.
The tight-knit bond is just part of the story, though. Vietnam's supply of fighter jets is quickly aging beyond its service life and Russia can provide an affordable update without training pilots, ground, and mechanic crews in a new language and weapons system, said Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College in Washington.
"Vietnam is desperate for a new generation of fighter jets, and they have a limited budget. They're comfortable with the Russians, and the Russians are willing to consider alternative funding mechanisms, so it's kind of a win-win," Abuza told VOA.
The deal could fulfill another crucial requirement for Vietnam through the joint oil venture: energy. Following the slump in manufacturing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam is scrambling for enough energy to power its growing economy.
"Vietnam can lock into a long-term supply contract for energy it desperately needs given its economic growth," Abuza said. "At the same time, they can make sure some of that money is then directed into an arms procurement platform."
Despite the benefits, the proposed Russian arms deal carries risks and the document leak reveals potential dissent among Vietnamese officials.
"This leaked document would cause a lot of trouble for the Vietnamese," Vuving said, adding that Hanoi is looking for support to build up a semiconductor supply chain and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh recently advocated for Vietnam to be granted market economy status during a Washington visit this month, which would benefit Vietnamese exporters in antidumping disputes.
"It shows that they are not reliable to the United States," Vuving stated. "That's why they wanted to keep [the arms deal] secret."
A defense partnership with Moscow is also increasingly chancy as Russia becomes more isolated and moves closer to China. The prospect of Russian lack of support in disputes between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea may have contributed to the leak.
"There are less reasons for Vietnamese to trust Russia in the South China Sea than before," Vuving said. "That's why I think some Vietnamese officials were so unhappy with this agreement and they leaked the document."
Even with the uncertainty, the majority consensus still supports the Russian arms deal.
"At the moment, Vietnam sees that the benefits outweigh the risks in dealing with Russia in the short term," Phuong said.