Vietnamese netizen sentiments suggest that they have generally been critical of Vietnam’s decision to abstain from the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On 2 March, Vietnam was among the 35 nations that abstained from the United Nations (UN) resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among ASEAN member states, the only abstentions came from Vietnam and Laos. The other member states voted in favour of the motion. Myanmar’s junta regime exhibited support for Russia’s actions.
An analysis of Vietnamese online sentiments suggests that Vietnamese netizens have generally been critical of their government’s stance. Public reactions to Vietnam’s abstention on the UN resolution were examined on 100 public Facebook pages, including those of the Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Hanoi, from 2 March to 12 March. Our data shows that support for the Vietnamese government’s stance was probably artificially amplified by posts from pro-government Facebook pages (see Figure 1A). When data from those pro-government Facebook pages are excluded (Figure 1B), the level of public criticism of the government’s position clearly dwarfs that of public support.
The criticisms of the government generally revolve around the following narratives:
- The abstention was an about-face, given the tenor of the speech Vietnam made at the UN General Assembly a day earlier. While still not singling out Russia, the speech had exhibited Vietnam’s desire for restraint and expressed its concern about the invasion. Citing Vietnam’s history of bruising wars, the speech pointed out that ‘too often wars and conflicts until today stem from obsolete doctrines of power politics, the ambition of domination and the imposition and the use of force in settling international disputes.’
- ‘Neutrality’ was just a pretext to paper over a virtual endorsement of Russia’s invasion, a move that could entail severe ramifications for Vietnam. Should Beijing be one day emboldened by Moscow’s actions to launch a similar incursion into the flashpoint South China Sea and much of the rest of the world stayed silent, Hanoi would have only itself to blame.
- The abstention was one made by Vietnam’s political elite because they were wary of offending Vladimir Putin. It did not represent the will of the Vietnamese public.
These sentiments appear to reflect some embarrassment and bafflement by Vietnamese netizens that their country was an outlier in ASEAN and in the international community by being among the small handful of states that abstained. They also embodied public frustration over what was perceived to be an overly cautious position on the conflict which – in the view of Vietnamese netizens – should have been used as a cautionary tale for a country also facing perennial threats from a giant neighbor next door – i.e., China.
While the online backlash is palpable, the Vietnamese government’s efforts to articulate its nuanced position to the public have remained elusive. As Vietnam has dictated that its state-controlled news outlets adopt a neutral tone and refrain from editorialising the Ukraine crisis, the handful of commentaries in the mainstream media that have been published have generally toed the official line. Their main messages revolved around seeking to reiterate Vietnam’s desire to stay strategically neutral. In the pro-regime Facebook pages, arguments in favour of the government’s position have taken more colour. Some key messages have been:
- The role of a UN resolution has been somewhat overblown. Case in point: A UN resolution that overwhelmingly condemned the American economic embargo of Cuba for the 29th year has still failed to deliver.
- It is hypocritical for those to have objected to the Russian invasion but kept mum on other wars waged by the US and its Western allies in the Middle East or elsewhere.
- The Ukraine crisis just accentuates the relevance of the mainstay of Vietnam’s foreign policy of not playing one major power off against another.
Judging from Vietnamese online responses, these narratives earned some public sympathy. An analysis of 10 pro-government Facebook pages finds that of nearly 1,200 posts churned out between 2 March and 14 March, six out of the top 10 most engaged were ones that used those key messages to counter critics of Vietnam’s abstention. Of those six posts, the most engaged one elicited over 13,000 reactions, a vast majority of which were positive, and 1,200 shares. Of more than 900 comments in response to the post, Internet users were overwhelmingly supportive. But notably, their opinions were strikingly aligned with, if not just regurgitating, the main thrust of the propagated narratives. This pattern was seen across the comment sections of all 10 pro-government Facebook pages analysed.
[These sentiments] also embodied public frustration over what was perceived to be an overly cautious position on the conflict which – in in the view of Vietnamese netizens – should have been used as a cautionary tale for a country also facing perennial threats from a giant neighbor next door – i.e., China.
It is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff in this regard, however. Vietnam’s cyber troops and public opinion shapers, which have been encouraged to use real accounts, may have been marshalled to magnify those pro-government comments. But at the end of the day, even if those public reactions were totally not orchestrated, they were still not able to offset the level of public criticism of Vietnam’s abstention, as our comparative sentiment analysis graphs have shown.
In sum, it is the bigger chunk of Vietnamese netizens who are unhappy with their government’s abstention that reflects a stubborn challenge facing the authorities. In its constant efforts to walk on an ever-narrowing tightrope in dealing with the major powers, Vietnam has to continue keeping a wary eye on a public that has become increasingly pro-US. The growing Sino-Russian nexus seems poised to exacerbate this sentiment in Vietnam, where being cast as meek and kowtowing to Beijing can be politically damaging.
Dien Nguyen An Luong is Associate Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam's top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.
Amirul Adli Rosli was a Research Officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.