U.S. President Joseph Biden will travel to Hanoi next month. Russian President Vladimir Putin could be next. This leaves Vietnam in a right (Russian) pickle.
Last week, U.S. President Joseph (“Joe”) Biden revealed that he would travel to Vietnam “soon”. Although he did not say exactly when, his trip to Hanoi is likely to take place in September in conjunction with the G20 Summit in New Delhi (September 9-10). According to press reports, he will skip the ASEAN summits in Jakarta (September 4-7).
The Vietnamese leadership will welcome Biden’s visit as another indication of the importance that the U.S. places on strengthening its relationship with Vietnam.
But if rumours in Hanoi are correct, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also expressed an interest in visiting Vietnam before the end of the year. On the one hand, visits by Biden and Putin would present Vietnam with an opportunity to show that when it comes to the major powers, it pursues a balanced foreign policy. On the other hand, as war continues to rage between Russia and Ukraine, Hanoi will have to consider the optics that a Putin visit would present to the rest of the world, especially the West.
If the Russian leader does go to Vietnam, it would be very significant indeed. Post-invasion, international travel has not been at the top of Putin’s agenda.
Since Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he has seldom ventured outside the country. When he has, his trips have been to former Soviet republics (the five countries that make up Central Asia, plus Belarus and Armenia) and Iran. Later this month, he is scheduled to visit Turkey.
The Russian leader wants to stay in Moscow to oversee his faltering military campaign in Ukraine. More importantly, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant in March 2023 for the Russian leader for his alleged war crimes. If Putin travels to a country that is a member of the ICC, it is obliged to arrest him. It is for this reason that Putin will participate virtually in the BRICS summit in South Africa later this month; South Africa is an ICC member.
Like for Biden, if Putin visits Vietnam it would likely be before or after his participation at a multilateral summit. Putin will not likely attend the G20, the ASEAN or APEC summits. Many G20 members oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and he will not want to share the stage with Biden. Putin has never been a fan of the EAS, having only attended once in person since Russia was admitted in 2011. Putin’s non-attendance at the APEC Summit in San Francisco in November 2023 is a virtual certainty, given high tensions between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine.
Vietnam is not going to sacrifice its national interests for Russia…Hanoi would not be in good odour with Washington or Brussels if it laid out the red carpet for Putin.
If Putin does travel to Vietnam, it will probably be after he attends the Belt and Road (BRI) Summit in China in October. This would make sense for two reasons.
First, Russia could argue that the West’s attempts to isolate it internationally have failed. Second, Moscow can argue that the Kremlin’s “turn to the east” announced in 2011 is still on track and that crucially, it is not just a turn towards China but Southeast Asia as well. More importantly, neither China nor Vietnam is a member of the ICC.
But the question on the lips of many a foreign policy wonk in Hanoi is whether the Vietnamese leadership would welcome a visit by Putin at this time of escalating tensions between Russia and the West. Russia is, of course, an old friend of Vietnam. Hanoi’s victory over the U.S.-supported regime in Saigon in 1975 would not have been possible without the Soviet Union’s massive military assistance. The Soviet Union was also one of Vietnam’s few international friends during its ten-year occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s. The Vietnamese have not forgotten the debt of honour they owe Moscow.
Putin himself is incredibly popular in Vietnam. Famously, in a 2017 Gallup Poll, 89 per cent of Vietnamese said they had a favourable view of Putin, compared with only 79 per cent in Russia.
Part of the reason is Putin’s so-called “strongman” macho image. More substantively, Putin is seen as the man who revitalised Vietnam-Russia relations when he came to power in 2000. Of the 11 trips Putin has made to Southeast Asia since 2000, five have been to Vietnam. In contrast, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was viewed as having abandoned Vietnam in the mid-1980s to improve relations with China. In the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin’s administration paid little attention to Vietnam or Asia in general.
But the Vietnamese leadership must consider the here and now. Despite its gratitude for the Kremlin’s past support, since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Vietnam has adopted a neutral position, as shown by its abstentions on Ukraine-related votes at the United Nations General Assembly.
More importantly, Vietnam is not going to sacrifice its national interests for Russia. Vietnam’s trade with Russia is small and, since the invasion, falling. The country’s most important export markets are the United States and Europe. Hanoi would not be in good odour with Washington or Brussels if it laid out the red carpet for Putin.
The mood music for a Putin visit to Hanoi is not propitious. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled to Vietnam in July last year, his American counterpart Antony Blinken abruptly cancelled his trip to Hanoi (Blinken went in April this year). When former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev flew into Vietnam in May, Vietnam’s state-run media reported it only after he had left.
It seems unlikely that Biden would have agreed to visit Vietnam if a Putin trip were on the cards shortly thereafter. Looks like the Russian leader will have to make do with just a photo opportunity with Chinese President Xi Jinping in October.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.