Putin in Hanoi: Bamboo Diplomacy or Shifting Priorities?


  • Hanoi’s decision to host a state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin does not make sense, as Vietnam’s strategic and commercial interests in Russia have dwindled over the years.
  • The decision to host Putin might reflect “bamboo diplomacy” and Hanoi’s domestic political shake-up.
  • Leaders in Hanoi should be careful as it might be sending the wrong message to its Western allies that it might be making an autocratic shift.

Putin’s two-day trip to Hanoi was a long time coming. There have been many rumors about his trip since China’s President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam last December. While it is hardly news that Vietnam is one of Russia’s remaining sympathetic friends, why did Hanoi risk negative reactions from its Western investors to host Putin? Why now?

In a commentary, David Hutt also questioned the motivation behind Hanoi’s decision to host Putin. Vietnam has little strategic interests or commercial ties left with Russia, except for its weapon and energy programs. There has been a long-time rumor that Vietnam is trying to sign a secret weapons deal with Moscow to circumvent international sanctions. In a way, Hanoi is indirectly aiding Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine by funneling money into Russia’s isolated economy.

Sympathetic commentators use “bamboo diplomacy” to explain Hanoi’s seemingly illogical foreign policy. Putin’s visit, similarly, has been portrayed as a typical act of power balancing. Leaders in Hanoi want to appear neutral by engaging with all leaders – even an internationally convicted criminal. As Hutt points out, hosting Putin amid positive ties with the United States helps mitigate doubts from Beijing about Hanoi’s shifting loyalty to the West. In other words, hosting Putin was Hanoi’s way of asserting its autonomy amid an ongoing international boycott of Russia.

However, as states rarely act based on strategic interests alone, there might be more to the story.

Firstly, the narrative of a “time-tested friendship” between Vietnam and Russia has resurfaced, referring to the Soviet Union’s generous support for the Communist revolution. The current generation of top leaders in Hanoi came of age during the golden age of the Soviet Union’s aid to Hanoi, and many of them were sent abroad to study in the Soviet Union. 

While it is problematic to suggest that the modern state of Vietnam’s close relationship with Russia rests on the educational background of a few leaders, it is not trivial. There is a general nostalgia for Russia, even when little strategic interest is left in aligning with Moscow. As Ian Storey wrote for Fulcrum, Vietnam’s reluctance to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine officially was partially driven by its leaders’ consideration for the generous military support of the Soviet Union from the past. This brings me to my second point.

Putin’s visit ominously comes as Hanoi’s leadership is in turmoil. One wonders whether hosting Putin in Hanoi subtly reflects Vietnam’s shifting agenda in foreign policy due to its own domestic leadership shake-up. Hanoi has been working overtime to ensure it is “business as usual,” regardless of who is in the Politburo. However, the timing of Putin’s visit adds to the suspicion that Hanoi might be taking an autocratic shift due to the increasing influence of state security in the government.

Two years ago, an article in the Vietnamese Magazine warned against the “Securocracy” of the Vietnamese political system as the result of the increasing number of leaders with police and intelligence backgrounds in the Politburo. In 2024, this warning is becoming even more omnipresent, especially with the recent appointment of former Minister of Public Security To Lam as president and the ousting of National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue – who was widely regarded as an economic “technocrat.”

Amid domestic leadership changes and diplomatic engagement with autocrats, Hanoi must be careful when sending messages to foreign investors in the West. In its own interest in its competition with China, the United States largely ignores Hanoi’s foreign engagements with Beijing and Moscow. In return, Washington expects these engagements not to affect Vietnam’s relationship with the West. 

However, consistent mixed signals might still send the wrong message to Washington. Being Putin’s second destination after North Korea and the timing of Hanoi’s political infighting did little to shore up Vietnam’s new modernizing image. To avoid sending the message that Vietnam is making an autocratic shift, leaders in Hanoi should be careful not to allow its military and security interests to override economic interests.

  1. AFP – Agence France Presse. (2024, June 20). History, “Bamboo Diplomacy” In Focus On Putin’s Vietnam Trip. Barrons. https://www.barrons.com/news/history-bamboo-diplomacy-in-focus-on-putin-s-vietnam-trip-5b4afeb6
  2. Beech, H. (2023, September 3). Vietnam Chases Secret Russian Arms Deals, Even as It Deepens U.S. Ties. New York Times. Retrieved June 26, 2024, from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/09/world/asia/vietnam-russia-arms-deal.html
  3. Hutt, D. (2024, June 19). Putin in Hanoi. Europe Meets Southeast Asia. https://europeinseasia.substack.com/p/putin-in-vietnam?utm_source=substack&publication_id=151443&post_id=145770073&utm_medium=email&utm_content=share&utm_campaign=email-share&triggerShare=true&isFreemail=true&r=38h940&triedRedirect=true
  4. Man, N. (2022, September 16). The securocratic turn in the Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/09/the-securocratic-turn-in-the-vietnamese-government-2/
  5. Razdan, K., & Razdan, K. (2024, March 26). Vietnam minister credits ‘bamboo diplomacy’ for balancing nation’s relations with China and US. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3256847/vietnam-minister-credits-bamboo-diplomacy-balancing-nations-relations-china-and-us
  6. Storey, I. (2024, April 29). Vietnam and the Russia-Ukraine War: Hanoi’s ‘Bamboo Diplomacy’ Pays Off but Challenges Remain. Fulcrum. https://fulcrum.sg/vietnam-and-the-russia-ukraine-war-hanois-bamboo-diplomacy-pays-off-but-challenges-remain/
  7. Vietnam Law Magazine. (2024, June 6). Russia, Vietnam share time-tested friendship: President Putin. Retrieved June 26, 2024, from https://vietnamlawmagazine.vn/russia-vietnam-share-time-tested-friendship-president-putin-71993.html


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