Russia agreed on Tuesday to help train the navy and build new ships for Vietnam as defense ministers of the two Cold War allies held talks in Hanoi, which is seeking to counterbalance China’s maritime influence in the region.
Vietnamese Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh told reporters after the talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu that Hanoi will also continue to buy military equipment from Moscow.
Shoigu said that Russia would help Vietnam launch its new submarine fleet, which Hanoi is expected to use to patrol waters in the South China Sea where it is locked in a territorial dispute with China.
"We will join efforts to usher in a new development of the Vietnamese navy. Vietnam's submarine force is expected to be established this year," Shoigu said.
Shoigu’s visit, which also included a brief meeting with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, came after the two countries upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership in July of last year, promising closer defense cooperation.
On Monday, Shoigu visited the Cam Ranh Port, which is strategically located near key shipping lanes in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has overlapping claims with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the potentially oil- and gas-rich sea, which is known as the East Sea in Vietnam.
Renewed Russian interest
Carl Thayer, a Vietnam scholar at the at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the visit to the port, which formerly hosted a Russian base, did not indicate that Moscow was seeking a permanent naval presence there.
But he hastened to add that Shoigu’s visit to Vietnam was an important indicator of Moscow’s focus on the region.
The visit “is a significant event signaling renewed Russian interest in East Asia,” he said.
Shoigu’s trip to Vietnam is the first since he took office as defense minister in November 2012. His predecessor did not attend the Hanoi-hosted meeting between defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from key nations in 2010.
In their talks, Thanh and Shoigu discussed plans for cooperation during the next meeting of the regional multilateral defense forum in October 2013 in Brunei.
Thayer said that although Russia is not interested in counterbalancing Chinese influence in the area, its deeper engagement with Vietnam could have an effect on maritime disputes.
“If Russian naval ships return to Southeast Asian waters in greater numbers they will not do so to contain China,” Thayer said.
“But Russia, like other maritime powers, has a stake in freedom of navigation. Russia will react to any challenge to this freedom in the same way that the United States, Japan, and India have done by asserting Russian rights under international law.”
He added that Vietnam’s development of its submarine fleet, with Russia’s help, would keep China on its toes amid the South China Sea dispute.
“China will have to be wary once Vietnam fully incorporates its six Kilo submarines into its navy and begins submarine operations in the South China Sea,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.