Vietnam is finding it increasingly hard to continue its policy of buying military equipment from Russia. Hanoi is aware of the rationale for securing weapons from other countries, but doing so will not be easy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to generate far-reaching implications for Southeast Asia. In the security domain, one of the key impacts will be the likely reduction in Russian arms sales to the region due to the wide-ranging sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. Vietnam, as Russia’s fifth largest arms importer globally and its largest in Southeast Asia, will be the hardest hit, making it imperative for Vietnam to accelerate its diversification of arms imports away from Russia.
Vietnam’s reliance on Russian arms is rooted in its traditional ties with the former Soviet Union. During the Vietnam War, although Vietnam received arms donations from several countries in the socialist bloc, the Soviet Union and China stood out as the main providers of military hardware. In terms of major weapon items, however, Moscow was Hanoi’s most important supplier. According to Vietnam’s official statistics, between 1955 and 1975, the Soviet Union provided Vietnam with, among other things, 1,357 missile launching systems, more than 18,300 missiles of different types, 316 fighter jets, 52 warships, 21 transportation ships, 687 tanks, 601 armored vehicles and 1,332 artillery tractors.
After the war ended in 1975, Soviet aid for Vietnam mainly focused on economic assistance, but the military equipment left from the Vietnam War era created path dependence for Vietnam, encouraging Hanoi to seek arms imports from Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. Vietnam’s dependence on Russian arms was further exacerbated by the fact that it could not find alternative and reliable sources of imports. Arms from Western countries were generally less affordable than Russian arms. Even if Vietnam could afford them, some would not be available due to sanctions and export controls. The United States, for example, did not lift a ban on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam until 2016. Meanwhile, Vietnam was not interested in buying Chinese arms due to the lack of trust between the two countries and their ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.
Since Vietnam started its military modernisation program in the late 1990s, most of the major weapon items it has acquired are of Russian origin, including six Kilo-class submarines, 36 Sukhoi Su-30MK2 multirole aircraft, four Gepard 3.9 class frigates and two Bastion mobile coastal defence missile systems. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that from 1995 to 2021, Vietnam’s arms imports totaled US$9.07 billion, in which Russia accounted for US$7.4 billion (81.6 per cent).
Vietnam started to face increasing difficulties in procuring arms from Russia following the latter’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. A case in point is Vietnam’s procurement of its third and fourth Gepard-class frigates from Russia. Russia was then building these frigates for Vietnam but reportedly had problems in acquiring the engines from Ukraine. Consequently, Vietnam had to conduct parallel negotiations with Russia to keep the project alive and with Ukraine to secure the engines. In the end, after some delay, the two frigates were commissioned in 2017, but the challenges caused Vietnam to drop its plan to purchase two more similar warships from Russia.
… it will not be easy for Vietnam to buy new military equipment from other countries. Vietnam’s military modernisation drive has slowed since 2016, and the country’s budget for new big-ticket military items seems tight, making weapons from Western countries less affordable for Vietnam.
Rising difficulties in procuring Russian arms may have explained why, also according to SIPRI data, Russia accounted for 90 per cent of Vietnam’s arms imports in the period 1995-2014, but only 68.4 per cent in the period 2015-2021. During the latter period, Vietnam appeared to try to diversify its arms procurements away from Russia. Some rising arms suppliers for Vietnam between 2015 and 2021 included Israel (13.7 per cent), Belarus (5.7 per cent), South Korea (3.3 per cent), the United States (3 per cent) and the Netherlands (2.4 per cent).
The fresh sanctions imposed by the West on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine will make it even harder for Vietnam to continue its arms imports from Russia. Firstly, there will be technical and financial hurdles as Russia will not have access to certain imported parts and components needed for its arms production, while major Russian banks have been excluded from the SWIFT global payments network, making it difficult for the two sides to settle payments. Secondly, continuing to buy arms from Russia will lead to reputational risks, causing Vietnam to be subject to potential sanctions, such as Washington’s 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Therefore, going forward, Vietnam should be expected to double its efforts to diversify its arms imports away from Russia.
That said, it will not be easy for Vietnam to buy new military equipment from other countries. Vietnam’s military modernisation drive has slowed since 2016, and the country’s budget for new big-ticket military items seems tight, making weapons from Western countries less affordable for Vietnam. The compatibility between Soviet/Russian weapon platforms and newer non-Russian platforms will also be a challenge. More importantly, as many senior Vietnamese military officials were trained in the Soviet Union and Russia, and have been used to doing business with their Russian counterparts, they may find it difficult to deal with new suppliers who have different business cultures, including more transparent business practices that Vietnamese officials may not be comfortable with.
Nevertheless, relying on a single source of arms will subject Vietnam to serious risks. Apart from the above-mentioned issues, Moscow’s increasingly close ties with Beijing is another source of risk that Hanoi should be mindful of, given the intensifying South China Sea dispute. Putting in place plans to wean itself off Russian arms will only become increasingly important to Vietnam. The compatibility issue means that this needs to be done in phases, matching the retirement of old Russian platforms with the procurement of new platforms from other suppliers. During this process, in addition to improving domestic arms production capabilities, further strengthening its strategic ties with potential alternative suppliers will also help Hanoi better manage its diversification efforts.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.