Why The West Shouldn't Worry About Putin's Visit To Hanoi

Author: Ba-Linh Tran

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Shortly after his trip to North Korea last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin was greeted in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, as an old friend. His 22-hour state visit received the highest level of reception and resulted in a number of agreements on energy and science and technology. There was also talk of the once-close allies collaborating on defence and security .

In many ways, this display of affection comes as no surprise. After all, it was the Communists in North Vietnam that won the war in 1975 with Soviet support and unified with Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the south.

Many of Vietnam's current political, business and academic elite also worked or studied in the Soviet Union over the following decade and are viscerally aware of the close relationship between it and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

Read more: Kim-Putin deal: why this is a coded message aimed at China and how it worries Beijing

Yet the greeting of old comrades and the litany of gestures to a growing cooperation sparked questions and concerns. After years of cooperation and booming integration with the US and western markets, should Putin's warm welcome in Hanoi worry the west?

We think not. While the current leaders of the CPV, as well as other elites, were shaped by the zenith of the Soviet-Vietnamese affinity, Vietnam's younger generations are not.

The country's 100 million population displays a very different – and more western – orientation. The leaders of Vietnam's booming digital economy, for example, largely studied in the west and speak English, rather than Russian.

Vietnamese students celebrating their graduation from school in Hanoi. Xita/Shutterstock

The US exerts substantially more influence on Vietnam than the time-tested Russian friend does. This is especially true for the generations born around or after the government introduced a series of free-market reforms in 1986 known as Đổi Mới. For most of these people, Russia is obscure outside of history lessons and a few provinces where it invests or sends tourists to.

Their coming-to-age has been under the auspices of growing western popularity. There has been a dramatic decline of Russia-related courses in Vietnamese schools and universities, and the Russian language is in much less demand than even French and Japanese . In contrast, the rise of international education in Vietnam has been marked by the mass import of western content, like the iGCSE curriculum and SAT exam.

Go west, young man

Education and work in the west has also become commonplace for young Vietnamese, including the sons and daughters of Russian-educated political, business and academic leaders. Our own research , which was published in 2021, compared the backgrounds of Vietnam's digital leaders – who are largely born during or after the Soviet Union's collapse – with the founders of Vietnam's leading firms in more traditional sectors such as coffee, furniture and steel.

Looking at the transnational experience of both sets of founders revealed a striking shift. Vietnam's booming startups are overwhelmingly led by returnees from the west, rather than from the former Soviet Union.

The founders of Vietnam's high-performing tech businesses are 15 times more likely to have experience in the US compared to their older peers. And they are a whopping 35 times more likely to be graduates of American universities than the leaders of Vietnam's big, traditional firms.

The entrepreneurs who are creating new wealth in Vietnam and shaping the direction and pace of its cultural norms, economic growth and technological links, have markedly different experience sets than the older generation.

This generational shift towards a western background, both in business and beyond, suggests to us that Putin's state visit may indeed be a largely ceremonial exercise. We see Vietnam's leadership rolling out the red carpet for Putin as part of their long-standing “Bamboo diplomacy” , in which Vietnam pragmatically engages with all powers.

Putin arriving at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a welcoming ceremony on June 20 2024. Gavril Grigorov / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool

It is unlikely to reflect deeper ambitions or future intentions for the country's change from bamboo diplomacy for two interrelated reasons.

First, the west has built a strong and tangible footing in all aspects of cultural, economic and technological life in Vietnam over the past 30 years - from the powerhouse Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north. Indeed, Hanoi even seems to welcome the west when it comes to security, a juxtaposition with Vietnam's inventory of Russian-made arms.

Second, Vietnam's political leadership will steadily come to have more western-educated returnees in senior positions. As the few generations of Vietnamese elites who hold strong affinity for Russia thin, so too will the commitment for agreements with their old comrades.

This is not to mention the country's already rather westernised economy, which is driven by free-trade agreements and investment from the west, buoyed by the growing western-educated business community.

Maybe the clearest indication of Vietnam's commitment to its bamboo diplomacy is the fact that the CPV welcomed a US assistant secretary of state, Daniel Kritenbrink, just three days after Putin left. The visit with the American friend reiterated the “comprehensive strategic partner” status of the US in Vietnam, placing it on a par with both China and Russia.

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