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Russian Trash

Vietnam gets 84% of its arms imports from Russia. To avoid sanctions, Gazprom and Rosneft have been ramping up energy production in Vietnam, including assistance with atomic sites. The strategic relationship between Vietnam and Russia isn't generally known, except to visitors of the Vietnamese resort towns on the coast, whose restaurants all advertise in Cyrillic. Next to the stunning beach resort town of Nha Trang, there is a Russian airforce base. South of Ho Chi Minh City, there is a port town, Vung Tau, that was awarded to the Russians for their assistance of the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. Vung Tau is a giant petropolis, and the Russians have basically trashed the place. A fully operational nuclear power plant in Phuoc Dinh is to be built by the wonderfully named Russian State company Atomstroyexport (a name which has nearly all the letters of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in it), with an $8 billion loan from Russia. Here's the head of Rosneft talking about the sanctions after the invasion of Crimea in 2014:


U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 have prohibited Western companies from working in Russian Arctic oilfields, producing tight oil or deepwater exploration in the country. U.S. major ExxonMobil decided to withdraw from sanctions-hit joint projects with Rosneft this year. Mervyn Goddings, head of Rosneft subsidiary RN-Vietnam, said the sanctions have forced the company to become more cautious and more proficient.


“There is mild inconvenience. It means that we have to be a little more astute in how we operate, where we buy from. There is plenty of opportunities, plenty of diversity. It just means that we have to become more efficient, more effective and a better operator,” he said.


The place where Rosneft and other business arms of the KGB are finding "plenty of opportunities" is Vietnam.


All this is to say that if there is a global war, we will be in the wrong place. My mother wrote to me indignantly to say that Vietnam had abstained from the U.N. resolution rebuking Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and I wrote back to her reassuringly to say that an abstention was as much as a small country the size of California could do given the weight of its big Chinese brother. I was wrong. Vietnam is Russia's closest diplomatic partner. In the event of a wider war, a business magazine (Geopolitics Today) writes this week to its concerned investors:


Putin is unlikely to abandon his thinly-veiled objective of regime-change and demilitarisation of Ukraine as long as the economic costs and political risks to his own regime remain manageable. Prospects of a diplomatic settlement are limited (evident from the unsuccessful peace talks). Similar to the pre-conflict standoff, fundamental demands from both Russia and Ukraine remained unmet. Two trajectories which could exacerbate the political/regulatory and business risks for Vietnamese investors/exporters bear watching:


First is a prolonged conflict, which could ensue even if the Russian military eventually takes Kyiv and installs a puppet regime after a sluggish campaign, as Western countries are likely to continue backing a Ukrainian insurgency to resist Moscow. A tightened sanctions regime would likely remain in place, and there is uncertainty over the extent of retaliation by a more desperate Russia. Elevated commodity prices levels, inflationary pressures, and continued trade and travel disruptions would not bode well for Vietnamese businesses and exporters.


Second is a wider NATO-Russia war. This would be a nightmare scenario that could quickly escalate into brinksmanship between NATO nuclear-armed states and Russia. Russia’s pariah state status in the international economy would become full-blown – its financial, trade, people and even digital links with the world cut off. Triggers for this trajectory could range from inadvertent escalation due to an unprovoked Russian attack on one of the NATO states along its border (e.g. Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Poland or Turkey), or if NATO states take the risky step of getting involved on the ground (e.g. covert ops to sabotage Russian targets, enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine).


All of this seems a long way from Mui Ne, where the blue water laps idly onto the perfect sand from my beach villa.

Cham Villas, Mui Ne

Gazing out to sea, I wondered idly what body of water I was looking at. The Pacific Ocean? The Indian Ocean? I really had no idea. I remembered it from Tim O'Brien's superb novel of the war, Going After Cacciato, where Paul Berlin, Specialist Fourth Class, looks out onto the sea from his guard post in Danang and transforms the face of the moon into a man who escapes from Vietnam to Paris. Not used to being unable to identify bodies of water, I looked it up: apparently both Tim O'Brien's Spec Four and I were looking at the South China Sea.


Except that in Vietnam, my students tell me, it's not called that. "We call it the East Sea," Hoang Anh said. "And the word for 'boat people,' tàu, is the word we use to describe the Chinese, who came here by boat a thousand years ago." She continued, "What others do to us, we also do to another group of people." Since this is in fact the premise of the book we're discussing, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Committed, the resulting conversation on Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, was given a new currency and emphasis. "The oppressed longs to become the oppressor," says Fanon. Orwell knew this. So does Nguyen. So do the Vietnamese.

A book my students tell me will never be translated into Vietnamese

The South China Sea, of course, has been the site of maritime disputes since long before Joseph Conrad took The Patna out for a spin. It is now contested by at least six neighboring countries: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China. The Chinese interest in Taiwan isn't just some territorial spat over an island. It's about controlling an area which has one third of the total maritime trade in the world. Read that again: one third. And the South China Sea isn't even an Ocean. There is no doubt, given the way that the Russians and the Chinese are chipping away at the Vietnamese coastline, the Russians from the South up to Danang and the Chinese from the North down from Hanoi, that the South China Sea is a powder keg.


Trust me, it's a powder keg

A flotilla of fishing boats at Hon Rom Bay

If you go to the beautiful site of the Po Sah Inu, a temple from the 9th century Cham Empire (that empire which mysteriously disappeared in the 10th century after the Vietnamese massacred them all), you will see the following:


Po Sah Inu Towers

You will also see this, a memorial to a Vietnamese guerilla action against the Japanese in 1947:



The contrast between the serenity of the towers and the jagged edge of the modern memorial could not be more striking:



At a site where a Buddha presides, there is a military bunker:


Buddha, Po Sah Inu Temple

Military Bunker, Po Sah Inu

This is not at all unusual in a country with a palimpsestic overlay of military history that compares to Ypres and Agincourt. What is unusual, at least to this tourist, is that the information about the Po Sah Inu towers is displayed in three languages: Vietnamese, Russian, and Chinese. Not English.


Pick a language, any language

The number of Westerners here, especially after the COVID outbreak, is negligible. When Vietnam opens its borders on March 15, something the tourist industries have been anxiously looking forward to, there is no doubt that the tourist sites of Dalat and Halong Bay will be once again full of Russians and Chinese. Russia has maintained complete freedom of movement between the two countries without restrictions during the Ukrainian conflict. This is mostly because Gazprom and Rosneft, Putin's business arms which have so far not been sanctioned, are trying to launder as much of his money as they can. The roller-coaster-sized empty hotels around Mui Ne are an indicator of that. The fact that Vung Tau has a sister city in Baku, Azerbaijan is an indicator of that. Vietnam is a beautiful country which has benefited hugely from the normalizing of diplomatic relations with America in the Clinton years. But the $4 billion it does in exports with the U.S. every year pales before the $400 billion it does in money laundering for the Russian government. And just watch what happens if Biden tries to sanction Vietnam.


Vietnam, then, is a perfect state. It is U.S.-proof, and 50 years of Hollywood filmmaking from Michael Cimino to Spike Lee will ensure that U.S. visitors stay to a minimum. It is China-proof, as one of the very few countries which can say that it actually defeated China in two wars. It is Russia-proof, since it has most of Russia's soft money, and is working with Russia on a comprehensive energy program that includes the oil in Vung Tau, the gas in the South China Sea, and atomic energy in Phuoc Dinh. It has inflationary problems which will be exacerbated by the rise in the cost of oil. But it can shut off the BBC (and has done) without anyone making a fuss, and everyone is focused here on making life better than it was for their parents and grandparents. In another memorable post by one of my students, Thu said "for my grandparents' generation, life was about war and loss. For my parents' generation, it was about poverty." "What is important to your generation, then?" I asked. "Is it healing? Reconciliation?" "Identity," she said.

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