Supply-chain hot spot Vietnam rolled out the red carpet for Putin, and the US is trying to act cool

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam this week, and the two countries signed various agreements.

  • The trip isn't a good look for the US after it elevated ties with Vietnam last year.

  • Vietnam's relationship with Russia dates back to the Soviet era and holds sentimental value.

Wanted by the International Criminal Court, Russian President Vladimir Putin still traveled to Vietnam on a two-day visit, where he was warmly welcomed.

On Thursday, the Russian leader wrapped up his trip to Vietnam. The two countries signed about a dozen cooperation agreements covering a range of subjects, including education and plans for a nuclear science and technology center.

Vietnam isn't a member of the ICC, so Putin was safe there. Russia and Vietnam also have a long history going back to the Soviet era, so his visit isn't surprising.

But Putin's quick trip — which came less than a year after the US upgraded its ties with Vietnam — isn't a good look for Washington or the West, which have imposed sweeping restrictions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Vietnam is a strategic partner for the US and its allies

The US is among Vietnam's largest trading partners, last year accounting for trade worth $111 billion. Russia's trade with Vietnam over the same period was just worth $3.6 billion.

Australia and Japan have also elevated their relationships with Vietnam over the past year, underscoring the Southeast Asian nation's strategic role in a changing geopolitical landscape.

Hoang Thi Ha, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, wrote on Wednesday that Putin's visit could jeopardize these newly forged partnerships because the optics were so stark.

Western allies might rethink "Vietnam's reliability as a strategic partner in the region," Hoang wrote.

"While Vietnam is not directly aiding Russia's war efforts, its warm reception of Putin could be perceived as ending foreign legitimacy to his regime and undermining US-led international efforts to oppose Russia's war in Ukraine," wrote Hoang, who's also a co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS.

Vietnam is a manufacturing hot spot for many multinational companies diversifying their operations outside China — the world's factory floor for the past 40 years — to hedge against supply-chain risks.

The US is trying to play it cool — but really isn't

The US Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, played it cool, saying on Thursday that America's elevated relationship with Vietnam didn't mean Hanoi had to break up with Moscow or Beijing.

"Vietnam has a policy and strategy of working collaboratively with many different countries, and it is not a condition of our partnership that they sever their ties to Russia or to China," Yellen said at a news conference in Atlanta.

Still, the US embassy in Vietnam issued a sharp criticism of the visit, saying that "no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities."

Hot on the heels of Putin's trip, the US State Department said on Thursday that Washington was sending Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, to Vietnam.

The department said Kritenbrink would meet senior Vietnamese officials on Friday and Saturday to underscore "strong US commitment" to Washington and Hanoi's strategic partnership.

Hanoi's sentimental attachment to the past has influenced its pragmatism

While Hanoi has a much-touted "bamboo diplomacy" policy of flexibility and balanced relations with diverse powers, it's still attached to its past.

Hoang at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute wrote that this sentimentalism influenced the pragmatism that had marked Hanoi's foreign policy for the past two decades.

Hoang wrote that it was also a smart political move, as a segment of Vietnamese still held "a deep fondness for Russia."

"Many still feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union and grateful for its support to Vietnam during the wars against the French and Americans," Hoang added. "Some are extremely enamored with Putin as an anti-Western symbol and a strongman leader, a phenomenon coined locally as 'Putin-mania.'"

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