Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a surprise to Vietnam. It remains to be seen how Vietnam can leverage its long-held omni-directional foreign policy to manoeuvre out of the crisis.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week might have come as a surprise to some who believed that Moscow was merely muscle-flexing to gain advantages vis-à-vis Kyiv and the West. But Russia’s so-called ‘special military operation’ (the latest euphemism for an outright invasion) came as an utter surprise to Vietnam.
Speaking to the Vietnamese media, Nguyen Hong Thach, Vietnam’s envoy to Ukraine, said he did not expect that Russian leader Vladimir Putin to be ‘so drastic and determined at all costs in achieving his goals’. His sentiment reflects Vietnam’s sense of bafflement. Hanoi, a long-standing friend of Russia which has also cultivated strong relations with China and the United States, is only beginning to grasp the geopolitical quandary that it faces.
First, Vietnam has to tread a thin diplomatic rope. As a matter of principle, Vietnam strives to befriend all countries and uphold a foreign policy of independence and self-reliance. This compels Hanoi to avoid taking sides in its official stance on the Ukraine crisis.
Hanoi’s problem is that many of the parties involved in the conflict have healthy and cooperative relationships with Vietnam. Russia is a comprehensive strategic partner and Vietnam’s largest weapons supplier. The US enjoys growing security and defence cooperation with Vietnam. Ukraine has a comprehensive partnership with Vietnam and the two countries have been stepping up bilateral cooperation on various issues. Vietnam’s business and trade connections with Europe are also thriving. Hanoi would want to avoid rocking the boat in any of these relationships.
Exercising diplomatic caution, Vietnam has expressed grave concerns over the conflict in Ukraine but refrained from mentioning any countries, in particular Russia. Instead, Vietnam called on parties concerned ‘to exercise restraint, observe the United Nations Charter and the fundamental principles of international law, avoid the use of force, protect the people, and keep up dialogue to seek a peaceful solution.’ However, as the conflict ensues, Hanoi is likely to face pressure from the international community, particularly Kyiv and the West, to condemn Russia or support sanctions against Russia.
Second, the Ukraine crisis will sharpen the rivalry between Russia, China, and the US. This will strain Vietnam’s efforts to balance its relations with the three major powers. Prior to the invasion, Moscow had been courting Beijing’s support in opposing the West and the rules-based international order that Washington spearheads. But unlike Russia and China, Vietnam holds a relatively supportive view of the US-led rules-based international order. After all, the principles espoused by such an order — for example, respect for sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes — are largely compatible with its national interests.
… fallout from the Ukraine crisis could usher a fluid new world order that is less favourable for small and medium-sized countries like Vietnam. For Vietnam, a peaceful and stable international environment has allowed the country to deepen international integration, thereby reaping the benefits of multilateralism.
Mounting security threats from a resurgent China have also pushed Vietnam closer to the US. The 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey indicates that Vietnamese elites have the strongest confidence in the US as the global leader to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law. 83 per cent of Vietnamese respondents welcome the political and strategic influence of the United States — the highest figure among respondents in ASEAN. But 80.3 per cent of Vietnamese respondents are worried about China’s growing strategic and political influence.
Hanoi’s long-held foreign policy principles such as non-alignment and diversification of external relations also put it in a difficult position. It quietly endorses the status quo buttressed by US primacy but maintains strategic partnerships with revisionist Russia and China. On the Ukraine issue, the growing divide between the US and the West on one side, and Russia and China on the other, would only accentuate Hanoi’s predicament.
Differences between Russia and Vietnam on the South China Sea dispute are also likely to widen. While not taking sides on the issue, Russia has provided assistance critical to Vietnam’s quest to modernise its military and enhance defence capabilities vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea. However, Moscow might scale down its arms sales for Hanoi in the interest of forging closer strategic cooperation with Beijing to counter Washington’s influence. In the South China Sea, this could directly affect Hanoi’s building of an anti-access area denial capability vis-à-vis China.
Third, fallout from the Ukraine crisis could usher a new world order that is less favourable for small and medium-sized countries like Vietnam. For Vietnam, a peaceful and stable international environment has allowed the country to deepen international integration, thereby reaping the benefits of multilateralism. But the escalating standoff between Russia and the West raises the likelihood of major power war and interstate armed conflict, posing risks to global stability.
Even without a major power war, the global economic turmoil stemming from the Russian-Ukrainian war would hamper the economic prospects of Vietnam, which relies on the stability of global supply chains. Furthermore, the Biden administration’s preoccupation with Russia might dilute its focus on the Indo-Pacific, depriving the region of a countervailing force to China’s expansionism (though it could be argued that Washington has far more important alliance commitments in the region).
Russian actions in Ukraine — which have been deemed a violation of the United Nations Charter by the UN Secretary-General — infringe on the principles of sovereignty and the equality of states under international law. As a country with a vested interest in a rules-based international order and a substantially bigger neighbour up north, Vietnam should be worried about the precedent that this development would set. If Russia could get away with using force to achieve its goals, China could be emboldened to take bold moves in pursuing its regional ambitions, particularly seeking to take control of the South China Sea.
For the longest time, Vietnamese strategists prided themselves on being able to reap the benefits of omni-directional diplomacy with little attendant costs. It remains to be seen how Hanoi can leverage such a policy to manoeuvre out of the Ukraine crisis.
Phan Xuan Dung is a Research Officer at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also a member of the US-Vietnam Next-Generation Leaders Initiative at the Pacific Forum.