A lot of ink has been spilled to explain Vietnam’s reticence to take a stronger position against Russia’s war in Ukraine. One facet of the Russo-Vietnam relationship that has not been discussed as much is the two countries’ political alignment on issues such as human rights and democracy in the global arena.
With many countries around the world voting in support of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) resolution that condemns Russia’s war on Ukraine, Vietnam’s abstention stood out as a rare outlier. Hanoi has since refrained from openly criticising Moscow’s aggression and atrocities, trying to walk a tight rope between preserving good relations with Russia and rhetorically defending the sanctity of all nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.
What accounts for Hanoi’s reticence? Most analyses have focused on its dependence on Russian arms and the deep reservoir of sentimental attachment and strategic trust towards Russia among the Vietnamese public and security establishment. By examining Vietnam and Russia’s voting patterns at the UNGA, another important factor emerges: In the past two decades, the two countries have increasingly become political allies in the global arena, particularly on issues pertaining to human rights and democracy.
Votes at the UNGA provide a standard source of data on state preferences and their observable positions on foreign policy issues. This article utilised a dataset published on the Harvard Dataverse. The analysis is limited to UNGA resolutions pertaining to human rights issues in two time periods, 1992-1999 (before Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000) with a total of 124 resolutions and 2000-2020 (Putin’s era) with 443 resolutions.
As a one-party state under the Vietnamese Communist Party, Vietnam zealously safeguards its political sovereignty from foreign interference. In the first decade after the Cold War, Hanoi watched with deep apprehension as the West triumphantly extolled liberal democracy as the best political system, imposed pressure on Vietnam’s one-party governance and disparaged its human rights record. To rub salt into the wound, Russia in the early years of the Yeltsin presidency pivoted to the West and sought to align with western countries on liberal values, leaving one-time ally Vietnam stranded and estranged.
This political estrangement between Hanoi and Moscow was manifest, among others, in their different voting patterns at the UNGA on human rights issues during this period. Between 1992 and 1999, the percentage of human rights-related resolutions where Vietnam and Russia voted in alignment — i.e. both agreed, disagreed or abstained — stood at 35 per cent only (Table 1). The two countries diverged (agreed/disagreed) or exhibited ambivalence (abstained/agreed or abstained/disagreed) in their positions for 55 per cent of the resolutions. Of note, their votes were diametrically opposed on resolutions regarding human rights situations in Cuba, Iran and Sudan (Russia for and Vietnam against). Russia also aligned with the West in voting for resolutions on human rights situations in Iraq whereas Vietnam consistently abstained.
Putin’s election in 2000 and his consolidation of power reversed the course of Hanoi-Moscow political estrangement. As Putin tightened his grip on Russian politics, the country’s foreign policy evolved into building “situational or even long-term alliances with other regional and global players” to promote the doctrine of preserving government control and rejecting democratisation as the only pathway to stability and development. While China is seen as Russia’s key partner in this endeavour, Vietnam also marches in lockstep with the two powers on human rights and democracy issues at multilateral organisations.
Underlying this strong convergence are Hanoi and Moscow’s overriding concerns about their regime security, deep-rooted grievances against Western liberal hegemony, and shared desire for a more ‘democratic and equitable’ global governance system.
Putin’s authoritarian leadership fuelled Russia’s pivot towards conservative voting on human rights issues at the UN. Accordingly, Vietnam and Russia became increasingly aligned on human rights-related resolutions with the share of their voting alignment jumping to 75 per cent between 2000 and 2020. In this period, there were only two resolutions (or 0.5 per cent) where the two countries voted in opposite directions — a sharp decrease from 12.9 per cent in the previous period (Figure 1). In contrast, the US and Vietnam voted similarly on only 4 per cent of the resolutions and diverged on the remaining 93 per cent.
Vietnam and Russia advocate alternative approaches that challenge the West’s human rights discourse. Such approaches put emphasis on national and regional particularities versus the notion of universality of human rights; the right to development and the importance of social-economic development as a means to realise human rights; respect for national sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, and diversity of democratic systems in electoral processes; and equitable geographical distribution of membership in human rights treaty bodies. Unlike the divergence in the previous period, both countries have completely converged in voting against resolutions on human rights situations in countries such as Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Uzbekistan, Belarus, North Korea and Myanmar.
On all UNGA resolutions regarding the above issues, Vietnam and Russia’s voting orientations were diametrically opposed to that of the US. They also pushed back against Washington on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism and the impact of unilateral coercive measures on human rights. Underlying this strong convergence are Hanoi and Moscow’s overriding concerns about regime security, deep-rooted grievances against Western liberal hegemony, and shared desire for a more ‘democratic and equitable’ global governance system.
This convergence of political worldviews enables a high level of trust between the two governments, which is sustained through regular dialogue between Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security and the Office of the Security Council of Russia, and at platforms such as the Strategic Dialogue on Diplomacy-Defence-Security. Recently, the political wings of both countries’ armed forces agreed to prioritise cooperation on ideological and political education. The joint statement during Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to Moscow in 2021 proclaimed that they share ‘similarity or concurrence of approaches […] to the majority of issues of international and regional agenda, contributing to promoting close coordination between the two countries within the framework of multilateral organisations.’
Vietnam’s reluctance to call out Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the multi-dimensionality of the two countries’ shared interests not only in military but also in political terms. However, Russia’s act of aggression also upended key normative assumptions of Vietnam-Russia political alignment that traditionally puts a premium on state sovereignty, non-interference, self-determination, non-use of force and opposition to coercive unilateral measures. Since Vietnam is seeking to project itself as an active and responsible member of the international community, an aggressive and intransigent Russia that flouts international law is becoming a depreciating asset for Hanoi.
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Darren Cheong was Research Associate with the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.