Vietnam Secretly Pursues Arms Deal with Moscow, Its Leadership Visits China Following Partnership Upgrade with the U.S.

Vietnam Secretly Pursues Arms Deal with Moscow, Its Leadership Visits China Following Partnership Upgrade with the U.S.

Fire in Hanoi Apartment Building Kills 56 People

A fire broke out in a nine-story apartment building in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, on the late evening of Sept. 12, killing at least 56 people, including several children, while injuring at least 37, authorities announced on Sept. 13. The fire reportedly started before midnight when many residents in a building housing about 150 people were asleep. The Hanoi authorities have identified 39 victims.

Vietnamese authorities are investigating the cause of the fire. The apartment building is at the end of a narrow alleyway, which made rescue operations difficult. Many people were trapped inside the building until after dawn.

On Sept. 13, the investigation agency of the Hanoi Police Department issued a decision to arrest Nghiem Quang Minh, the building’s owner, for further investigation into the deadly incident. The owner is also subject to criminal prosecution for allegedly violating fire prevention regulations. It was reported that many newly built apartment buildings in Hanoi do not meet fire safety standards.

A report on fire and explosion incidents announced at the 26th session of Vietnam’s National Assembly Standing Committee showed that between Oct. 1, 2022, and July 31, 2023, the country recorded 2,031 incidents of fire (an increase of 38.16% compared to the same period last year), killing 83 people (an increase of 48.21%), and injuring 74 people (an increase of 5.71%). These fires caused a total damage of 637 billion dong ( $26 million).

According to a government statement via Reuters, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited the site on Sept. 13 and called for the completion of anti-fire regulations at small-sized apartment buildings and in densely populated residential areas.

Last year, on Sept. 6, a fire set off at the An Phu karaoke bar in Binh Duong Province, north of Ho Chi Minh City, killed 32 people. Such incidents have highlighted severe issues related to the effectiveness of the Fire and Rescue Department and Vietnam’s fire safety inspection procedures.

U.S. and Vietnam Release Joint Statements Following an Upgrade of Diplomatic Partnership

The leaders of Vietnam and the United States, on Sept. 11, released a joint statement emphasizing the mutual deepening of political, diplomatic, economic, and trade cooperation after U.S. President Joe Biden met with General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi the day before. Following the historic meeting, the United States and Vietnam elevated their bilateral relationship into a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” the highest hierarchy of Vietnam’s diplomatic relationships.

The joint statement affirmed that the United States “supports a strong, independent, prosperous, and resilient Vietnam” while underscoring the importance of economic, trade, and investment cooperation “as the core foundations and sources of momentum in the bilateral relationship.” Both countries also vowed to extend their bilateral cooperation on education and training, the environment and climate change, health, culture, human rights, and on addressing war legacies.

However, human rights advocates pointed out that the White House-released fact sheet, which numbered more than  2,600 words, only contained 112 words regarding the protection of human rights. According to these advocates, Biden’s travel to Vietnam was a disappointment, given his administration’s vow to prioritize human rights when taking office in 2021. Other analysts believe that the Biden administration’s tendency to avoid discussing human rights emboldens authoritarian nations to continue their suppression of civil liberties.

The talks between the two countries' leaders included maritime disputes and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The United States. and Vietnam warned on Sept. 11 against the “threat or use of force” in the disputed South China Sea, days after a Chinese vessel harassed a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracel Islands. However, China was not mentioned in the statement. President Biden and Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong said the competing claims in the strategic waterway must be settled under international norms.

At the same time, during the Biden visit, Hanoi closely monitored activists and human rights defenders in Vietnam during the visit. Many activists in Hanoi told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that state-sponsored security agents and plainclothes police officers guarded their houses and followed them whenever they went outside.

Vietnam’s state-owned media also censored Biden’s remarks on the U.S. support for advancing human rights in Vietnam. At the Central Office of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hanoi, Biden said, “I also raised the importance of respect for human rights as a priority for both my administration and the American people. And we’ll continue to — our candid dialogue on that regard.” But in Vietnamese media, his comment was only translated as “I also emphasize the importance of respecting human rights.”

Vietnam Released Civil Society Leader Mai Phan Loi Ahead of Biden’s Visit

RFA reported that Vietnamese authorities had released independent journalist and civil society leader Mai Phan Loi 18 months before the end of his 45-month sentence, according to a friend of his family. Loi was freed on Sept. 10, when U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Hanoi for two days of high-profile meetings with Vietnamese leaders.

Loi, the chairman of the Scientific Council of the Community Education and Communication Center, was arrested in June 2021 for “tax evasion.” Prosecutors alleged he instructed his subordinates not to declare funds received from abroad, worth nearly US$83,000. In the trial in early 2022, he was sentenced to 48 months in prison, but the sentence was reduced after an appeal.

His release surprised Loi and his family, a friend and social activist who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons told RFA Vietnamese. “The prison told him to undergo procedures and leave the prison early on Sunday morning, and his family was completely uninformed about his return,” the friend said. The friend said he believed the U.S. president’s visit brought about Loi’s release because the U.S. Embassy had campaigned on his behalf.

A Facebook User in Dong Nai Province Convicted of “Abusing Democratic Freedoms”

A court in Vietnam’s southern Dong Nai Province on Sept. 15 convicted Hoang Khuong, 41, a Facebook user from Thong Nhat District in Dong Nai, of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the legitimate interests of the state and legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals” according to Article 331 of the Penal Code. Khuong was subsequently sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

Vietnam’s state media reported, quoting the indictment released by the Thong Nhat District Court, that the Dong Nai social media user had used social networks to post false information to distort the policies and guidelines of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the state of Vietnam and insult other individuals and organizations.

The indictment stated that between 2019 and May 2023, Hoang Khuong used his accounts on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to publish the alleged “anti-state” information. However, state media did not clearly state what information the Dong Nai man posted on his social media accounts that contained false information and distortion of the party and state’s policies and which individuals and organizations were defamed by his postings.

Hanoi Court to Try Facebooker Nguyen Minh Son on “Distributing Anti-State Propaganda”

The Hanoi People’s Court is scheduled to try Nguyen Minh Son, 61, a social media user who often expressed his personal opinions about Vietnam’s socio-political issues, on Sept. 20 on the charges of “distributing anti-State propaganda” under Article 117 of the Penal Code.

Last year, the Hanoi Police Department arrested Son on Sept. 28 and charged him under Article 117 due to a video he published on his personal Facebook account. The content of the video was not made public. The police also searched his house and confiscated several documents, books, and his computer.

The social media user participated in many protests in Hanoi between 2011 and 2018 to protest China’s aggression in the South China Sea and the Hanoi government’s plan to cut down old trees in the city center.

Son's wife, Nguyen Thi Phuoc, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that lawyer Ngo Anh Tuan informed her about her husband’s trial date. On the other hand, the family received no information from the authorities regarding Son’s first-instance trial. Phuoc added that the family has not been able to see Son since his arrest last year. They have been unable to call or send him letters asking about his health. Every month, Phuoc still sends supplies to her husband, who is held in Detention Center No. 1 of the Hanoi Police Department.

Earlier, the Hanoi social media user was summoned by the Hanoi police for questioning regarding a video clip that he posted on the Facebook account “Son Nguyen” on Dec.  31, 2021, that allegedly contained insulting statements about the late Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Vietnam Tries to Force Ethnic Minority Church Members to Renounce Faith

In a video circulated on social media, a police officer in Vietnam’s northern province of Lao Cai was heard forbidding a Hmong church member of a group not recognized by the government from joining online services, RFA reported. He also threatened to punish the church member’s family if the Hmong religious adherent did not obey. This incident highlights Vietnam’s continued restrictions on religious freedom, guaranteed in its Constitution.

The Vietnamese authorities have accused the God Loves Us Church, or Bà Cô Dợ in Vietnamese, of heresy and separatism. The church’s leader, Vu Thi Do, denies these accusations and says the government is targeting her church because it is a minority group.

In recent months, there have been several incidents of harassment and intimidation against members of the God Loves Us Church. In one incident, police set up a checkpoint near a church member's home and stationed security guards around the clock. In another incident, police confiscated the mobile phones of church members and deleted all the apps they were using to watch online services.

According to Chang A Pao, a Hmong leader in the God Loves Us organization, local authorities have harassed adherents for many years, including a recent incident at Pao’s home in Lai Chau Province.

On August 27, 2023, a group of local police officers and public servants reportedly came to his home to disperse his fellow adherents from a gathering. According to Sung Phai Ta, another group leader, local authorities then arrested four people, including Vang Ca Lung, Chang A Pao, Sung Va Hoa, and Vang Thi May. Ta said they even tried to force one of them, Hoa, to sign a declaration renouncing his faith, but Hoa refused.

Vietnamese Leadership Visited China after The U.S. And Vietnam Upgraded Diplomatic Partnership

State media reported that Vietnamese public security minister To Lam, a Politburo member, paid a courtesy call to Cai Qi, secretary of the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and director of the CCP Central Committee, on Sept. 13 as part of Lam’s official China visit between Sept. 12-16.

During the meeting with Cai, Lam praised the outstanding achievements that China has achieved in recent years, such as its holding of the 20th National Congress of the CCP last October 2022 and the first session of the 14th National People’s Congress in March 2023.

According to Vietnam’s state media, To Lam said he hoped to implement mutually signed agreements between the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security and Chinese security and legal enforcement agencies and deepen cooperation on issues such as crime prevention and control, combating transnational crimes such as drug and human trafficking, cyber fraud, and illegal immigration activities.

On the same day, To Lam co-chaired the eighth ministerial conference on crime prevention and control with the Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong. The two security ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding on preventing and controlling transnational gambling.

On the morning of Sept. 16, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh arrived in the southwest Chinese city of Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi Province, to attend the 20th China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) and China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (CABIS), held between September 16 and 17.

Chinh’s delegation included Minister of Industry and Trade Nguyen Hong Dien, Finance Minister Ho Duc Phoc, Chairman of the Commission for Management of State Capital at Enterprises Nguyen Hoang Anh, and Secretary of the Northern Lang Son Province Party Committee Nguyen Quoc Doan. In Nanning, the Vietnamese prime minister is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Li Qiang, and the secretary of the Party Committee of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Liu Ning.

Vietnam’s state news agency Tuoi Tre Online wrote that Pham Minh Chinh’s two-day trip “shows Vietnam’s respect for this event, the Vietnam-China ties and the ASEAN-China relations.” Last year, Vietnam and China’s bilateral trade rose 5.47% to US$175.56 billion. Vietnam News Agency reported that Vietnam’s exports to China were valued at $57.7 billion, a rise of 3.18% from the previous year. This made Vietnam China’s largest trade partner among the ASEAN member countries.

Vietnamese Former Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh Dead at 64

Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, former deputy minister of National Defense of Vietnam, died at home in Hanoi on Sept. 14 following a period of illness. He was 64. Vinh was the son of the late Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh, head of the General Political Department of the Vietnamese Army.

Vinh served as Deputy Minister of National Defense between 2009 and 2021. During that time, he was crucial in promoting Vietnam’s defense diplomacy and strengthening its international security ties. He was also a strong advocate for Vietnamese sovereignty and independence.

Vinh was born in 1957 in Thua-Thien Hue Province. He joined the Vietnamese People’s Army in 1975 and served in various roles, including director of the General Department of Defense Intelligence and deputy chief of the General Staff. He was also a member of the Party Central Committee for two terms.

Vinh was also regarded as a strong advocate for Vietnam’s sovereignty and independence. He often spoke out on the importance of Vietnam maintaining its stance and decision-making autonomy in international affairs. He was also a strong supporter of ASEAN and its rules-based order. The Japanese government awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun in May 2023 to recognize his contributions to defense cooperation between the two countries.

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

Vietnam Chases Secret Russian Arms Deal, Even as It Deepens U.S. Ties

New York Times/Hannah Beech/Sept. 9

Vietnam secretly plans to buy weapons from Russia, violating U.S. sanctions, while President Biden is visiting Hanoi to strengthen ties with the country and counter China’s regional influence.

An internal Vietnamese government document, dated March 2023, shows Hanoi’s proposal for defense purchases with Moscow through transfers at a joint Vietnamese and Russian oil venture in Siberia. The paper, signed by a Vietnamese deputy finance minister, notes that Vietnam is negotiating a new arms deal with Russia that would “strengthen strategic trust” when “Western countries are embargoing Russia in all aspects.”

Vietnam has long depended on Russian weaponry, and Washington's vow to punish countries that buy Russian weapons has made it difficult for Vietnam to revamp its military. Vietnam’s pursuit of a Russian arms deal could undercut its outreach to the United States, but it also shows the risks of an American foreign policy that forces countries to make a binary “us or them” choice.

American diplomatic officials did not respond to the New York Times requests for comment about the prospect of the arms deal. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Washington has “unrealistic expectations” of Vietnam. He added that the U.S. does not fully understand the sensitivity and comprehensiveness of Vietnam’s relationship with China and Russia.

How will Vietnam’s upgraded US partnership impact its China, Russia ties?

South China Morning Post/ Zachary Abuza/ Sept. 17

“China is Vietnam’s second largest foreign investor with US$26 billion in 4,000 projects, including US$2.7 billion in 2023 alone.

Despite US$22 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) commitments in 2022, though, Vietnam’s economy is slowing. TheirGDP in 2023 is half of the stated target, and exports are slumping. Vietnam is desperate for more FDI and export markets. The US is key to that and to pulling the country out of the ‘middle-income trap’.

While a new US chip facility was announced at the summit, the US also had to commit to seed money to develop a workforce. Vietnam currently has insufficient human capital to deal with all the investment in the hi-tech sector. Developing that capital will take time and a lot of resources.”

Vietnam and Washington’s “De-risking” Strategy: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Fulcrum/ Nguyen Khac Giang/ Sept. 15

“The recent announcement of the Vietnam–U.S. CSP might not signify a major shift in Vietnam’s foreign policy. However, in terms of long-term trajectory of economic development, it signifies Vietnam’s attempt to seek deeper integration into the U.S.-led economic ecosystem. The U.S. envisions its new “friend and reliable partner” to fill some of the vast vacuum in a world striving to “de-risk” from China. Vietnam has much potential to fulfill such a high expectation, but it needs to both attract more investments, particularly in infrastructure, and continue much-needed structural reforms in its post-Covid economy.”

Biden all about Realpolitik in Vietnam and India

Asia Times/ Richard Javad Heydarian/ Sept. 13

“Crucially, Vietnam is undergoing a major political transition, which has empowered more traditionalist, Western-skeptic factions and politicians.

Booming US-Vietnam ties over the past decade have ironically coincided with the gradual sidelining of more reform-oriented and liberal-minded figures in the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Latest purges have largely empowered members of the security establishment, who are deeply concerned about the prospect of “color revolutions” and Western-backed democratic uprisings amid rapid economic growth, which has created an increasingly large and sophisticated middle class.”

Hanoi’s American Hedge: Why a New U.S. Partnership Is Unlikely to Change Vietnam’s Multi-alignment Strategy

Foreign Affairs/ Huong Le Thu/ Sept. 12

“Yet it is far too simplistic to assume that Vietnam is choosing to align with the United States. For one thing, although Vietnam reserves its comprehensive strategic partnerships for a select group of countries, that list also includes China, India, Russia, and South Korea. And it maintains other levels of partnerships with many other states. In fact, such complex and multilayered ties—including with countries that are themselves rivals—is characteristic of Vietnam’s approach. The government has long sought to align itself with multiple countries rather than a single power. At the same time, for Vietnam, it is no secret that China is both an obstacle to and an impetus for enhanced security ties with the United States. Getting too close to Washington too soon could be seen as a provocation to Beijing and would likely invite some form of retaliation that Hanoi seeks to avoid.”

Assessing the Bolstered U.S.-Vietnam Relationship

Council on Foreign Relations/ Joshua Kurlantzick and Abigail McGowan/ Sept. 11

“This major step forward in the bilateral relationship was likely a response to Vietnam’s growing concerns about China’s actions in the region, and the response from most of Vietnam’s ASEAN neighbors (save the Philippines and Singapore) to Beijing’s activities. Vietnam is principally concerned by China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, to which Vietnam holds competing territorial claims. At the same time, other Southeast Asian nations such as Laos and Myanmar are increasingly leaning toward China. Most concerning is treaty ally Thailand: at this point, it remains unclear whether the United States could rely on Bangkok in the case of a regional conflict with China.”

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