Countering Russia in South-East Asia

Obama’s decision to lift the arms embargo against Vietnam raises interesting questions about wider geopolitical calculations in the region.

One of the latest and most interesting pieces of news has been the decision of Obama’s administration to lift the arms embargo that has been in place against an old foe of the United States, namely Vietnam. The first natural reaction has been to place the event in the context of US-Chinese relations, and of South China Sea affairs. This makes perfect sense as Vietnam has indeed been having some serious issues with its bigger neighbour. Hanoi’s ability to purchase US-made weaponry reflects Obama’s determination to prove to the Chinese that he means what he says that Beijing should not take advantage of its ‘sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.’ Nonetheless, the lifting of the embargo does not directly entail the arming of Vietnam; yet the symbolism is there.

What has not so much been spoken about however, is the position of Russia in this whole affair. I believe this is also a keypoint to observe. It is known that Russia is the main supplier of lethal weapons to Vietnam, and also that the two countries enjoy a ‘strategic partnership’. In response to the news, Radio Sputnik Vietnam aired Vietnamese military analyst Colonel Le The Mau, who reiterated that such a move would not affect the special ties between the two countries. But is this really so?

Over the last two years the US-Russian relationship has gone from bad to worse, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. It may be that we are seeing a new stage in the drama developing towards Southeast Asia. Today’s Russia does indeed have global aspirations (anyone that doubted this fact has been enlightened by Russia’s intervention in Syria). The latest strategic direction for Russia, more specifically in the ASEAN region, has been made abundantly clear during this month’s Russia-ASEAN Summit in Sochi. The photo of Putin being content with how the summit went says it all. Russia’s President is rarely seen in such a good mood, but aside from such superficial observations, the summit resulted in the leader in the Kremlin inviting the Asian delegates to the upcoming International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg and the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Moreover, the idea of a free trade zone between ASEAN and the Eurasian Union was placed on the table. A successful outcome would finally set in motion the grand-scheme of a geopolitical and geoconomic Eurasian giant. It is unlikely that China is as eager about the idea, however. 

As for Russian-Vietnamese relations, prior to the Russia-ASEAN Summit, and most significantly prior to Obama’s decision to lift the embargo, the premiers of the two countries had been discussing critical issues such as ‘’the implementation of large joint projects in the nuclear power industry, oil and gas sector, industry, agriculture, scientific-technological sphere and other fields." According to one Russian expert, Vietnam is seen precisely as that bridge that could connect Moscow to ASEAN. In other words, Russia needs Vietnam a lot. With the US entering the equation, this bridge might start to be shaky, if not entirely crumble. And yes, China does play a role in this balance of power. 

More exactly, the US might be resorting to Kissinger’s ‘triangular diplomacy’. According to some voices, Russia has not been entirely satisfying the Vietnamese desire for militray instruments, as that would have strained its relations with Beijing. Having relied mainly on this source of supply, Hanoi has not been in a position to counter this state of affairs. Now however, with the US arms industry stepping in, there is a diversification of supply, thus a leverage for Hanoi not only against Moscow, but via Moscow against Beijing itself. How Putin will respond to the new situation will affect both the evolution of his Eurasian plan, and also Russian-Chinese ties; ties that I consider to be very fragile. 

Whether or not this new state of affairs has been the main goal of Obama’s embargo game, or simply a side-effect, we can only speculate. But such a decision, sugar-coated as removing a lingering vestige of the Cold War,’ is a very smart tactical step necessary both for deterring an assertive China in the South China Sea, and for countering Russian aspirations in Southeast Asia. If China responds in an aggressive manner towards Vietnam, Russia would have to either support Hanoi to the detriment of Moscow-Beijing relations (something that Putin would not risk) or turn a blind eye, which would ruin his ASEAN project. How could ASEAN countries ever rely on Russia when China could have its way with Vietnam without any opposition from Moscow? At the same time, Beijing would probably not want to set in motion a situation that might so clearly reveal the fragility of its partnership with Russia. Therefore, Beijing would probably not endanger Vietnam and the ASEAN’s countries’ sense of security in a heavy-handed way. Both scenarios underscore the still-existing limitations of Russia and China in the face of American superiority. It could be argued that in one strike, Obama put both giants in check.

Claudiu-Nicolae Sonda
OAG Analysis

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