When President Biden is greeted by Vietnamese officials in Hanoi on Sunday, he will be celebrating the prospect of adding another friend in Asia to a coalition that his administration hopes will side with American interests rather than China’s and Russia’s.
During Mr. Biden’s visit, the two nations will underscore their commitment to “increase peace, prosperity, and stability in the region,” a White House press statement said. Nguyen Phu Trong, the top Vietnamese leader, is expected to confer upon the United States an upgrade of strategic ties. The Biden administration has reciprocated early, glossing over the Communist Party of Vietnam’s intensifying human rights crackdown.
But even as the United States and Vietnam have nurtured their relationship over recent months, Hanoi is making clandestine plans to buy an arsenal of weapons from Russia in contravention of American sanctions, an internal Vietnamese government document shows.
The Ministry of Finance document, which is dated March 2023 and whose contents have been verified by former and current Vietnamese officials, lays out how Vietnam proposes to modernize its military by secretly paying for defense purchases through transfers at a joint Vietnamese and Russian oil venture in Siberia. Signed by a Vietnamese deputy finance minister, the document notes that Vietnam is negotiating a new arms deal with Russia that would “strengthen strategic trust” at a time when “Russia is being embargoed by Western countries in all aspects.”
For Vietnam, the idea makes a certain sense. Once one of the world’s top 10 arms importers, Vietnam has long depended on Russian weaponry. The United States’ vow to punish nations that buy Russian weapons has roiled Vietnam’s plans to revamp its military and create a tougher deterrent to Chinese encroachment on its maritime borders in the South China Sea.
Yet by developing its secret plan to pay for Russian defense equipment, Vietnam is stepping into the center of a larger security contest that is steeped both in Cold War politics and the hot war of the moment, in Ukraine.
American diplomatic officials did not respond to requests for comment about the prospect of the arms deal.
Hanoi is adept at dancing between world powers. But its pursuit of a Russian arms deal undercuts its outreach to the United States. And it shows the risks of an American foreign policy that forces countries to make a binary “us or them” choice.
“I feel in some ways that America has unrealistic expectations of Vietnam,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and author of an upcoming book on Russia’s relations with Southeast Asia. “I’m not sure that they fully understand how sensitive Vietnam’s relationship with China is and how deep their relationship with Russia is. Misunderstanding these things could get America burned.”
Once again, Vietnam’s strategic positioning — dominated by China to the north, bound to Russia by history and, most recently, courted by the United States — has fashioned this Southeast Asian nation of 100 million people into a geopolitical fulcrum. And once again, Vietnam, a country that within a quarter-century repelled three invaders — France, the United States and China — is hoping to stay clear of a superpower showdown and forge its own path.
Building an Arsenal
The Ministry of Finance document sets out a detailed plan for how the Ministry of National Defense would pay for Russian weapons. To avoid American scrutiny, money for Russian arms would be transferred within the books of a Russian-Vietnamese joint venture called Rusvietpetro, which has oil and natural gas operations in northern Russia.
“Our party and state,” the document says, “still identify Russia as the most important strategic partner in defense and security.”
Two months after the Ministry of Finance proposal was internally circulated, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former Russian prime minister and current deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, made a quiet trip to Hanoi. The visit was barely covered in Vietnam’s state media, but the Vietnamese officials say he was there to firm up the defense deal. One Vietnamese official put the terms of a new arms agreement with Russia at $8 billion over 20 years.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, Vietnam has provided cover to its longtime ally. Vietnam has refused to condemn the invasion at the United Nations, and it voted against suspending Russia from the body’s Human Rights Council. At a security conference in Moscow last month, Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu of Russia singled out Vietnam as an ideal buyer of the latest in Russian arms.
For its part, the United States has tried to pull Vietnam out of Russia’s orbit. In 2016, Washington lifted a weapons embargo on Hanoi. While no one expected Vietnam to immediately acquire American fighter jets, it was clear that Vietnam would be rewarded as a useful hedge against China. The upgrading of U.S.-Vietnamese strategic ties on Sunday will also make it easier for U.S. allies like South Korea to sell advanced weaponry to Vietnam.
Even before the war in Ukraine exposed problems with some Russian military hardware, Hanoi had begun to diversify, tapping suppliers in Israel and the Czech Republic, among others. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 forced Vietnam to source frigates in Russia but get key parts for them in Ukraine, an awkward scramble. And Moscow’s need to supply its own war effort has raised questions about whether Russian factories can churn out enough to meet foreign arms orders, too.
The United States placed a round of sanctions on Russia, among others, in 2017, raising the possibility of penalties for countries that do business with Russian military or intelligence bodies. After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the United States also excluded Russian banks from global payment systems that Vietnam had used to buy military equipment.
“If Vietnam continues to buy weapons from Russia, our international prestige will be harmed,” said Nguyen The Phuong, a defense analyst who has lectured at the University of Economics and Finance in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “Importing weapons from Russia will have a negative effect on Vietnam’s future economic growth because the United States and our European partners are the main stream for our exports. It’s not worth it.”
Nevertheless, Vietnam’s military remains deeply tied to Russia — and changing that could take years, if not decades. Historical allegiance is strong. During what the Vietnamese call the American War, Soviet missiles helped Vietnamese Communist forces battle the Americans. Generations of Vietnam’s top brass trained in the Soviet Union and later Russia.
There are practical considerations. Vietnamese fighter jet and submarine control boards are in Cyrillic. Switching would take time and money, neither of which Vietnam has in abundance. It needs newer fighter jets after a string of crashes within its fleet of aging Russian combat aircraft.
Another reason for keeping open the Russian arms pipeline: buying Western weapons would require more transparency than dealing with the Russians.
“Every contract with Russia goes with money under the table or something under the table,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra and an expert on the Vietnamese military. “Are Vietnamese generals going to want to give that up?”
Hard-line members of Vietnam’s leadership now have the upper hand as Mr. Trong tightens his grip. They remain distrustful of the United States, regardless of the welcome for Mr. Biden. There is fear that the United States might try to foment a democratic revolution in Vietnam or, at the very least, attach human rights conditions to future arms purchases, said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington and author of an upcoming book about the Vietnamese military.
“A deal with Russia makes every sense in the world,” he said. “Everyone wants to talk about this burgeoning defense relationship with the United States, but it ain’t going to happen because the Vietnamese military is very pro-Russian.”
A Balancing Act
The Vietnamese military has vanquished powerful enemies. It chased out the imperial French and the Americans. In 1979, Vietnamese forces clashed with the People’s Liberation Army, whose brief invasion evoked China’s colonial domination of Vietnam for a millennium.
Yet Hanoi has also depended on a flexible “bamboo diplomacy” to preserve relations in a difficult neighborhood, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. For every measure of friendship with one superpower, Vietnam tends to extend a handshake to another. Vietnam watchers expect that Xi Jinping of China and perhaps even Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will visit Vietnam this year, on the heels of Mr. Biden’s stop in Hanoi.
“Now that the Vietnamese are raising their ties with the United States, they also need to show China and Russia that they are not abandoning them,” Mr. Vuving said. “It’s a very delicate balance they have to maintain.”
Secretly tying the Vietnamese military to an arms supplier that is having trouble supplying itself might not seem like the most deft strategy. Some younger Vietnamese officials and others associated with the government say they do not support a new arms deal with Russia. But the military is the most conservative of national institutions, and its foremost priority is to protect the Communist Party, not the state.
In the Ministry of Finance’s laying out of Vietnam’s arms dilemma, the document noted that although the United States could impose sanctions on Vietnam for buying Russian weapons, Washington was unlikely to do so because of Hanoi’s value to Washington as a partner in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, a blueprint to contain China.
Vietnam may well have recognized the complex calculus of great powers. In April, Daniel J. Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters that it would be in Vietnam’s interests to conform to U.S. law, including sanctions, and to diversify military spending away from Russia.
But Mr. Kritenbrink reserved criticism of Hanoi, and he did not elaborate on whether sanctions might be imposed.
“I’ll leave to Vietnam and my friends in Hanoi to comment on their own views and their own position, but certainly we’ve made very clear what our position is on that matter,” he said, adding that “Vietnam is one of our most important partners in the region, and I’m very optimistic about our future.”
“The United States will not want to alienate Vietnam at a time when they want to build partnerships and alliances in this region to counter the rise of China,” said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and a former Vietnamese foreign ministry official. “Both sides are practicing the art of strategic patience.”
Edward Wong contributed reporting.