Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 111

The foreign minister of Vietnam paid a two-day visit to Moscow this week, marking another step in recent efforts by the two countries to improve bilateral relations, but apparently producing few if any significant results. Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien arrived in Moscow on June 5, and his two days of talks included meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko. Although the visit produced fresh expressions of Russian-Vietnamese friendship, the apparently prosaic mood of the talks contrasted with the at times euphoric atmosphere that enveloped President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Hanoi this past March. The seeming absence of any immediate progress on a host of initiatives launched during Putin’s trip suggested that the two countries may face some slow going in giving substance to the “strategic partnership” agreement Putin and Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong signed in March.

The Putin-Luong talks, it may be remembered, were seen as a groundbreaking event that offered the hope of reviving the close ties Moscow and Hanoi had during the Cold War. Putin was given a warm and enthusiastic reception by Vietnam’s aging communist leadership (if not by the population at large), and headlines accented the fact that his was the first visit to Vietnam by a Soviet or Russian leader. Putin’s arrival in the Vietnamese capital, moreover, was seen not merely as a first move aimed at bolstering Russian-Vietnamese bilateral ties but–following, as it did, Putin’s visit to Seoul–as a constituent part of a Russian play to raise its profile throughout Asia.

Putin’s Hanoi visit (like the earlier one to Seoul) was also noteworthy for the fact that it appeared to emphasize economic over political and security issues. The Russian and Vietnamese presidents signed a “strategic partnership” agreement that included pledges of increased economic and trade cooperation, as well as increased interaction in the defense realm, and it was economic and trade initiatives which appeared to dominate the package of agreements signed by the two presidents. Progress in this area, moreover, appeared to have received a boost from the fact that Moscow and Hanoi had reached an agreement last fall resolving what had been the biggest obstacle to improved economic ties: the restructuring of Vietnam’s estimated US$11 billion Soviet-era debt to Russia. A September 2000 agreement reduced the debt to a more manageable US$1.7 billion, a figure subsequently reduced even more (see the Monitor, March 5).

Although Nien’s visit to Moscow this week did include talks with Khristenko, who serves as co-chair of a Russian-Vietnamese intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation, interaction in this area received little press attention and produced no evidence of any breakthroughs. This apparent lack of results may have further frustrated Vietnamese officials who have reportedly expressed disappointment over what they claim is Moscow’s slow implementation of the barter agreements–intended to pay off the remainder of Hanoi’s debt to Russia–reached during Putin’s March visit to Hanoi (AFP, June 5).

Meanwhile, another potential disagreement of considerable importance hangs over Russian-Vietnamese relations and might have had an adverse effect on Nien’s Moscow visit. On June 1, less than a week before the Vietnamese minister’s arrival in Moscow, Russian diplomats first raised the possibility that the two countries might be unable to reach an agreement on extending Russia’s lease of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval base. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov, who oversees Asian policy within the ministry, told reporters that Moscow might choose not to renew the lease upon its expiration in 2004. In remarks he made that day, and in subsequent statements over the next several, Losyukov suggested that Vietnam was asking too high a price for a new rental agreement, and that the Russian government was reconsidering whether it really needed to maintain a presence at the facility. “The question is,” Losyukov was quoted as saying, “how much we really need the base, and how much we will be able to use it for our own interests. If we are gong to pay large sums to use it, then we have to decide whether such expenses are justified.”

The negotiations over Cam Ranh are significant for Russia. Moscow has leased the U.S.-built base rent-free since 1979, and the facility is believed to have served as a major Soviet listening post in the Far East, and, according to intelligence sources, as a runway for the Soviet nuclear bomber fleet. The base is thought still to be an important component of Russian naval planning because it enables Russian ships to sail to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Control of the base also has regional significance: Reports have suggested that both China and the United States are eyeing the facility and that neither is enthusiastic about a continued Russian presence there. Putin, meanwhile, who has launched a major downsizing of the Russian armed forces, must decide whether the country’s limited military budget permits it to maintain a facility that is probably of increasingly little use to Russia’s shrinking navy. Analysts say that the number of Russian ships visiting the base has declined steadily and that its use for intelligence purposes has also diminished (Izvestia, China Daily, March 1; Reuters, March 2; Russian agencies, June 1, 5; AFP, June 5-7; Australian Broadcast Corporation, June 6).

If Russia and Vietnam managed little progress on the Cam Ranh Bay negotiations and other issues, they did at least restate their common opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and their common support for the 1972 ABM treaty. Under normal circumstances, those may have been little more than obligatory diplomatic statements. In this case, however, they may mean something more. In July, Hanoi is to host this year’s annual summit of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), and this week’s Russian-Vietnamese talks were devoted in part to preparations for that meeting. But reports out of Moscow suggested that the Kremlin is also angling to ensure that the missile defense issue gets an airing at the summit, and that it may introduce the issue of the possible deployment of a U.S.-Japanese theater missile defense shield in Asia as well. Against this background, the Russian move to get another endorsement of its opposition to U.S. missile defense plans from Vietnam may be part of a broader effort to rally ASEAN member states behind Moscow on this contentious issue prior to the July summit meeting. That would fit Moscow’s apparent design of not only pressuring Washington to reconsider its missile defense plans, but also internationalizing the issue to the greatest extent possible (Russian agencies, May 4-5; AFP, June 5-6).