Vietnam and the Zen of juggling

M.K. Bhadrakumar April 6, 2015 6:51 PM (UTC+8)
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Vietnam is on a roll. Hanoi hosted Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Dmitry Medvedev, Russian Prime Minister within the week. And, while Medvedev was still in town on Monday on what appeared to be a successful visit, just 660 kilometre south of Hanoi, U.S. destroyer USS Fitzgerald and coastal combat ship USS Fort Worth docked at central Vietnam’s Tien Sa port near Da Nang city on a five-day goodwill visit to Vietnam.

Imagine a Chinese destroyer docking at Hambantota port while Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his visit to Sri Lanka recently. India would have gone ballistic. Yet, Medvedev even seemed to enjoy his visit.

Pelosi said while in Hanoi that the U.S. and Vietnam have much potential to lift bilateral ties to strategic partnership. The bilateral trade turnover touched $35 billion last year and accounts for nearly 12 percent of Vietnam’s total trade.

The U.S. has by far outstripped Russia as Vietnam’s trading partner. Russia and Vietnam are struggling to reach their bilateral trade targeted at $10 billion five years hence in 2020. The trade stood at a paltry $2.5 billion last year.

On the other hand, Medvedev’s visit aimed at further strengthening the “comprehensive strategic partnership” between Russia and Vietnam. Alongside, the discussions are galloping toward signing a free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Hanoi in the first half of this year.

Indeed, EEU is that same baby that former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton in a fit of anger once vowed to strangle in its cradle. She had said, “We [US] know what it is and we are trying to figure out effective ways o slow down or prevent it.” Clinton saw the EEU as an invidious move by President Vladimir Putin to “re-Sovietise the region.” The remarks back in December 2012  sound ominous today against the backdrop of the regime change Ukraine, et al.

Washington views with distaste any country getting entangled in the EEU love triangle between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. But Hanoi appears unperturbed, since trade is always most welcome and is a top priority for Vietnam, including with China, which, incidentally, exceeded $50 billion by 2013 already, making China Vietnam’s number one trading partner by far. (The corresponding figure for Vietnam-India trade is around $4 billion.)

2015 becomes an anniversary year for both the U.S. and Russia. It is the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam and the 65th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between Russia and Vietnam. The visit by Medvedev and USS Fitzgerald were occasioned by their respective anniversary celebrations. That was smart thinking by Hanoi, which enables it to raise diplomatic toasts with Moscow and Washington simultaneously year after year, till eternity.

Unsurprisingly, Medvedev got greater attention than Pelosi from the top leadership in Hanoi. But then, Medvedev is a comrade, which Pelosi is certainly not. The Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang is expected to attend the upcoming 70th anniversary celebrations of the victory of the Second World War to be held in early May in Moscow, which, of course, President Barack Obama is boycotting as a mark of protest over Ukraine.

But then, Obama himself is widely expected to visit Vietnam later this year in November as part of the Asian tour to attend the APEC summit meeting in the Philippines.

During Medvedev’s visit, a cooperation agreement was signed between the ruling parties of the two countries. Indeed, there is no such pact conceivable now or ever between the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Democratic Party of the U.S.

In fact, USS Fitzgerald proposes to steer clear of politics altogether and instead focus on fun and frolic – “a series of skill exchange events and activities in military healthcare, search and rescue, maritime security, music concerts, community service events and team sports among others,” according to Xinhua news agency reporting from Hanoi.

Curiously, U.S. officials had disclosed to Reuters just last month that Washington has asked Vietnam to stop letting Russia use the former American base of Cam Ranh Bay to refuel nuclear-capable bombers conducting “provocative flights” around the U.S. Pacific Ocean territory of Guam, home to a major American base, “that could raise tensions in the region.”

But, as could be expected, Hanoi failed to react, while Moscow uncharacteristically enough chose to ignore the U.S. rhetoric. Now, Pentagon too has since calmed down, by deputing USS Fitzgerald to Da Nang.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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