Vietnam's Russia-Ukraine War Stance in the Headlines
Plus Australia's new Philippines maritime security package; the evolving "China + 1" story in Southeast Asia; a new mapping section and much more.
Welcome back to ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! This week we’re looking at Vietnam’s evolving stance in the Russia-Ukraine war; Australia’s new maritime security package for the Philippines; the evolving “China + 1” geoeconomic story in Southeast Asia and much more.
We’re also pleased to announce that we are adding a new, original section called “WonkWatch” on top of the newsletter — where we map some key datapoints to give our busiest, more visually-inclined readers a quick snapshot of certain connections between major developments related to Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific and the broader globe that we are watching. These datapoints will be dated and the caption will include links to local and foreign sources, which will be useful for those tracking the region’s evolving media ecosystem, government narratives and conceptual storylines. This is in addition to our “WonkReads” section which already highlights longer analysis, commentary and research from and about the region every week.
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Let’s dig in!
This week’s WonkCount: 2,213 words (~10 minutes reading time)
Vietnam’s Russia-Ukraine War Stance in the Headlines
Recent high-level engagements between Vietnam and both Russia and Ukraine highlight Hanoi’s evolving approach following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine within the broader calibration of its alignments.
What's Behind It
Vietnam's leaders held high-level engagements with Ukraine and Russia in the same week, which highlighted Hanoi’s attention to calibration and scrutiny over its position following the Russia-Ukraine War. Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, Japan, while Vietnamese leaders also engaged with former Russian president and premier Dmitry Medvedev back in Vietnam, who now serves as deputy chairman of the country’s Security Council.
Vietnam's attention to calibration in its alignments is far from new, yet the Russia-Ukraine war has been a complicating factor within this. As observed before on ASEAN Wonk, partnership calibration applies to Hanoi’s relationships more generally too, beyond a single actor or dynamics like U.S.-China competition. Specific to Russia, even during the Cold War, closer ties with Moscow were not cost-free, as evidenced by the intensifying hostility in Vietnam’s ties with China during the Sino-Soviet split or the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union itself — indeed, it was no coincidence that Vietnamese leaders had already begun trying to readjust ties with neighbors and major powers as well as undertaking economic reforms in the 1980s. Since the outbreak of the war, Vietnam has been among the countries scrutinized for its close ties to Russia — from meetings and its record in United Nations resolutions (see image below on a recent abstention) to military exercises and defense equipment (though SIPRI data has shown that Hanoi’s reliance has declined relatively speaking from around 90 percent to less than 70 percent over the past decade).
Why It Matters
While the optics spotlighted Vietnam’s ongoing approach to the Russia-Ukraine War, they did not fundamentally alter the structural dynamics behind Hanoi’s stance. To date, Vietnam has unsurprisingly not been at the forefront of those publicly criticizing or severing aspects of its ties with Russia given its relations with Moscow, even though Hanoi has provided some limited humanitarian assistance to Ukraine; has worked to ensure the security of Vietnamese citizens in the country including through evacuations; and has subtly pointed to its longstanding support for rules and international law. Both diplomatic interactions did not see dramatic departures from this general trajectory. The official Vietnamese readout from the Zelenskyy meeting touched on points like humanitarian support and bluntly noted Hanoi’s empathy as a country which has also experienced many wars in its past. The meetings with Medvedev highlighted already ongoing efforts, such as sectoral cooperation within the Vietnam-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership out to 2030 in economics, science, technology, education and health.
Though the engagements meant a focus on the Russia-Ukraine war dynamic, it is also just one aspect of Hanoi’s broader calibration of its alignments. While the endurance of the war and Vietnam’s appearance at high-level summitry over the past week has naturally intensified the scrutiny on Vietnam’s approach, the international focus on Hanoi's balancing can be selective, which underappreciates the full breadth of Hanoi's engagements. For example, to cite two other less reported engagements in just this week alone, Vietnam received both Indian and Chinese vessels (despite South China Sea tensions in the latter case) and participated in a trilateral defense border engagement with Cambodia and Laos ahead of a planned first meeting at the end of this year, part of Hanoi's ongoing diplomatic activism within mainland Southeast Asia — itself a manifestation of a less emphasized aspect of how China’s regional inroads also affect subregional dynamics.
Where It's Headed
Periodic scrutiny on Vietnam's Russia-Ukraine war can be expected to continue, especially when the country is in the international spotlight. Within Southeast Asia, Vietnam is often scrutinized for some of its stances as it is a militarily capable, diplomatically active country among the top twenty most populous countries in the world that is also simultaneously not seen as part of the “traditionally like-minded” group of states on issues like democracy and human rights due to its status as a one-party communist state. More generally, even as the war drags on, Vietnam still has deep bilateral ties to Russia and there are other channels through which relations with Moscow are ongoing, such as on the ASEAN track (the trajectory of ties are by no means where they were before the war, but engagements continue to be held facilitated by the current dialogue partner coordinator Cambodia).
The emphasis on episodic, public engagements will take place alongside other subtler, longer-term shifts in Vietnams alignments. The headlines have mostly focused on the long-delayed potential upgrading of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to the level of a strategic partnership, and events like Vietnam’s holding of a first-of-its-kind large international defense expo last year (right now, Washington is on the lowest tier of Hanoi's typology of alignments at a comprehensive partnership, and Russia and China are at the highest level). Yet as pointed out before here at ASEAN Wonk, there are other key storylines as well, including potential upgrades in ties with notable countries like Australia.
“China +1” in Thailand and Vietnam; Philippines Foreign Partnerships Perceptions; The NUG’s Financing Outlook in Myanmar
“Vietnam and Thailand, which have favorable policies for foreign investors, are benefiting from firms pursuing a China + 1 policy of having supply chains in both China and another Asia market,” notes the latest business environment report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, which lists both Vietnam and Thailand as the “biggest winners in Asia” having climbed by 12 and 10 places respectively. The findings are still making media headlines, and, in case you missed it, the original report was published here.
“Traditional partners such as the US, Australia and Japan remain the top-preferred diplomatic partners. There is a growing but still minority interest in partnerships with China, which is strongly opposed by an equal number of respondents,” reads a new study on Philippine national security perceptions released by Amador Research Services. The results also show a desire to forge better relations with other countries such as South Korea and the European Union, while Russia sees the same dynamic present with respect to China, with both high favorability and unfavorability ratings(see image below). You can read the full study here.
“The NUG has an array of innovative fundraising mechanisms that take advantage of their fintech savvy…Yet the Tatmadaw is aware of the NUG’s limited resources, reliance on black markets, and lack of meaningful international support…The most important thing about war is logistics, and here, even a poorly run state has an advantage,” concludes a new report by the Stimson Center. The report delves into the state of play in Myanmar’s civil war (see table below); the dynamics of how the NUG is being armed; the state of its fundraising; and the ruling government’s response. You can read the complete report here.