Senior Vietnamese politicians are on a low-key road trip around Europe, picking up new friends and cementing partnerships with some unlikely countries. Military agreements have been signed with Germany, Poland and the UK. Is one of the world’s last remaining communist states opening up to the West?
Vietnam has traditionally relied on Soviet-era weaponry and the country’s defence spending is comparatively low at around $1.5bn (€1.1bn) a year. However, it is on the increase and Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia office, said that it “seems to be a match between the Europeans looking for new defence export opportunities and Vietnam’s perceived need to significantly upgrade its capabilities.”
These three new partnerships are just the latest round in Vietnam’s push for a greater international role as an increasingly extrovert country. They come hot on the heels of an agreement signed in August to begin normalising defence relations with the US through personnel exchanges, training exercises and joint search and rescue cooperation. There is even talk that the US may symbolically refurbish some of the “Huey” helicopters that it left behind when its troops left Saigon in rather a hurry back in 1975.
Hanoi has also worked hard to bolster relations with other opponents from its long war, having signed similar military agreements with Australia and France in the last two years, as well as others with Brazil, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia.
The Russian deal in particular yielded some very tangible results in a late-2009 arms deal for six Kilo-class attack submarines, help to build a new base to house them and a fleet of cutting-edge Su-30 fighter aircraft.
There are a number of reasons behind Vietnam’s thawing relations with the wider world, but the Russian weapons bonanza points to one of the strongest. Indeed, Russia was so keen to support its old friend that in a move very reminiscent of the Cold War, it effectively gave Vietnam the weapons and cancelled its debts as well. So what did Moscow get in exchange? Exploitation rights to tap into Vietnam’s expansive oil and gas claims.
Details are currently scant on exactly what the Europeans plan to get in exchange and some analysts are pointing to a resurgence of support for a modified version of Eisenhower’s Domino theory, looking to Vietnam as a hedge against growing Chinese influence. This theory could hold water, because although the two countries have annual trade worth in the order of $10bn (€7.3bn), Vietnam’s relationship with China is increasingly abrasive, particularly regarding their disputed claims to the Spratly Islands and their expected mineral wealth.
Dr Huxley added that Vietnam “feels a need to set up some kind of strategic trip-wire in the South China Sea against potential pressure or even Chinese aggression”.
Despite a clear aversion to getting involved in the strategic nightmare of the disputed Spratlys, Europe may also have at least one eye on its own access to Vietnam’s mineral rights too.