As I have noted in previous blogs, most Southeast Asian states are heavily conflicted about condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or going farther and joining international sanctions and other similar measures against the Kremlin. Singapore has gone the farthest, joining international sanctions, condemning the invasion – and probably realizing that a precedent of a giant neighbor dominating smaller countries in its region is one that would not bode well for the city-state. Other countries, like Indonesia and Thailand, have been more circumspect, not wanting to alienate an arms supplier and also, with Thailand, a very important source of tourism. Some, like Myanmar, are so dependent on and linked to Russia that the ruling junta has wholeheartedly backed the Ukraine invasion.
As Richard Ehrlich notes in a recent Asia Times article, the Kremlin has continued to enjoy success wooing Thailand. He writes, “Russia’s latest success [with Thailand} surfaced on April 7 when Bangkok joined 57 other nations and abstained from voting at the United Nations General Assembly when it suspended Moscow from the UN Human Rights Council.”
But Vietnam, as I have noted before, is in the most difficult situation vis-à-vis the Ukraine war of any state in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, despite being one of the United States’ closest strategic partners in Southeast Asia and a country with deep suspicions of China, the local dominant power, has long and deep ties to Russia, dating back to the Vietnam War. As a result, its military is heavily dependent on Russian equipment.
Now, Vietnam seems to be caught even further between its desire to build relations with the United States and European countries, and its need to maintain links with Russia, in order to maintain expertise for its arms and so as not to destroy its longstanding ties to Moscow. According to Radio Free Asia, Hanoi is planning to hold joint military drills with Moscow. According to RFA, “Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti said the initial planning meeting for the military training exercise was held virtually between the leaders of Russia’s Eastern Military District and the Vietnamese army.” Vietnam has given mealy-mouthed responses when asked whether these exercises are happening but has not denied they will take place.
Joint military drills, even more than Vietnam’s abstentions of measures to condemn Russia at the United Nations, are going to send a problematic message at this time – and not only because Russia is invading and brutalizing Ukraine. (Vietnam, like Thailand, also voted against kicking Russia off the UN Human Rights Council.)
Indeed, all ASEAN states, including Vietnam, are planning to meet for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on May 12 and 13 (the meeting was postponed from an earlier date). Having one of the most important states in ASEAN conducting joint exercises with Russia, while this summit is scheduled, is a terrible image for ASEAN.
Further, as David Hutt notes, Vietnam could even face sanctions for its continuing military links to Russia. He notes that in 2017 Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, which threatens sanctions against any country buying weapons from Russia. The Act has not been used before against Vietnam (or Indonesia), but in the current climate of the Ukraine war, it is not hard to imagine Washington cracking down and sanctioning Vietnam (which, to its credit, has been buying less weapons recently from Russia), despite the fact that Vietnam is important to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.