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Bamboo Diplomacy: Putin Visits Vietnam



Russian President, Vladimir Putin, touched down in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on June 20th 2024. The visit to Hanoi marked the next stage of Putin’s Asian trip, which saw the Russian president visit North Korea before making the journey to Vietnam. 


Both North Korea and Russia can be viewed as pariahs on the global stage, outcast by the West. However, when it comes to Vietnam, the global context is somewhat different.  Vietnam is now largely considered as the new ‘cool kid’ on the block, and there is no surprise that everyone wants to be its friend. A leading garment exporter and key figure within South East Asia - responsible for balancing political, economic and military ties in the region,  Vietnam boasts successful international relationships on a global platform.


Their geopolitical success largely boils down to their specific diplomatic style, known as ‘bamboo diplomacy.’ Inspired by the bamboo plant, with its sturdy roots and flexible branches, the idea of ‘bamboo diplomacy’ is clear: Vietnam’s diplomatic approach remains “firm yet flexible.” 


It was during the 2016 Vietnam Diplomatic Conference where the term ‘bamboo diplomacy’ was first coined, by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong. In 2021,during the National Congress on External Relations, Nguyen Phu Trong used the term once more, this time defining it as: 


Vietnam’s diplomacy is described as soft and wise, yet persistent and resolute. It is characterised by being flexible and creative in the face of all struggles and challenges that stand in the way of national independence and people’s happiness. At the same time, it remains consistent, courageous, resilient, united, and humane. The diplomacy is committed to protecting national interests while demonstrating determination and patience.”


Within the context of the global economic stage, ‘bamboo diplomacy’ is clearly evident when  considering the trade built ties that exist between Vietnam and both China and the US. However, when we sieve through the current state of global affairs and hark towards the devastating history that the Vietnamese people have had to endure, then the relationship that exists between Vietnam and Russia cannot  just be viewed as merely strategic but must be considered through a personal lens too. 


During the time of the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union (USSR)stood as the largest weapons supplier to the North Vietnamese - a title which to this day Russia maintains. Across the ‘theatre of war’ the Soviet Union remained a strong and loyal ally to the Vietnamese offering aid and assistance. Like-minded, with aligning ideologies, the USSR and Vietnam established a close relationship, which has remained intact. In fact,the cross-pollination of this relationship becomes evident when we consider that Nguyen Phu Trong became a student in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 


Fast-forward to the present day and it is understandable  why Vietnam and Russia would want to maintain and even honour their relationship. As previously indicated, despite being considered a political pariah in the West, Putin is not condemned a pariah on the global stage - with this Asian tour proving that Putin still has friends outside of the Western confines.


It is this very idea that has the West, and notably the US, spooked. 


During his visit to Vietnam, it was expected that much of the conversation between Putin and President To Lam would centre around strategic ties, which already firmly exist between the two following the signing of the 2001 strategic partnership deal. 


As one can imagine, the arrival of Putin on Vietnamese soil stirred up emotions. Condemning the visit, a US Embassy of Hanoi Spokesperson stated that


“If he is able to travel freely, it could normalise Russia’s blatant violations of international law,” (US Embassy of Hanoi Spokesperson)


Now, this is where the waters muddy and the hypocrisy of the US creeps in. In line with Vietnamese ‘bamboo diplomacy,’ at the front and centre of their foreign policy, Vietnam has attempted to honour both its history and promote its current interests, by adopting the approach of befriending all


All, being the key word here. 


It seems ironic that the US would condemn Vietnam for extending a strategic hand to Russia when just last year President Biden made the visit to Vietnam himself, seemingly forgetting the years of horror and bloodshed that the US military rained down on the Vietnamese people.


Surely, by extending a hand to the US in the form of trade deals, and also China, Vietnam is indicating its bamboo like ability to bend in order to further its countries interests and needs.  


Despite the US leaving horrific scars on Vietnam. 


Vietnam has endured a long and gruelling history at the hands of external invaders and so attempts to keep the integrity of a nation are part and parcel of its relations and policies.


On the global stage and within the context of Ukraine, with whom Vietnam shares its own history, Vietnam has taken a neutral stance to the war between Ukraine and Russia. 


However, by not condemning Russia, Vietnam has come under fire from the US. An embassy spokesperson released a statement saying: 


“No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalise his atrocities.” 

This statement, however, surely reflects the double standards of the US and questions their integrity. 


Why is it seemingly okay for the US to continue to support Israel, who are not only guilty of aggression but in the eyes of many are also guilty of genocide, ,     whilst concomitantly condemning Vietnam  for maintaining a neutral stance on the Ukraine War and hosting Russia for strategic talks? 


This level of hypocrisy alongside both the historic and current context of the US in Vietnam will be examined in the second chapter of this series.


Image: Office of the President of the Russian Federation

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