Armenia-Vietnam Relations – Realities and Prospects

Abstract: 

The relationship between the SSR of Armenia and Vietnam was relatively robust during the Soviet time.The Armenian SSR and its people played a pivotal role in supporting the revolutionary and national construction endeavours of Vietnam, significantly contributing to the education and training of Vietnamese officials and students. This historical synergy continues to hold a central place in the narratives of contemporary Vietnamese officials. However, the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century put a strain on the once-strong bonds between Armenian and Vietnamese people. Although the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992, difficulties have been encountered in their development. 

Since the early 2000s, Vietnam has been a country that has encountered steady economic growth driven by successes in industrial, service and agricultural sectors. Understanding Vietnamese achievements in these fields and exploring their possible implementation in Armenia’s economic context are worth considering. Additionally, the free trade agreement signed between the EAEU and Vietnam in 2015 and the current developments taking place in and around Armenia and Vietnam merit careful consideration as a means of strengthening economic relations between the two countries. Prospects for cultural diplomacy through international platforms, such as the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie and bilateral dialogue based on the cultural heritage inherited from the Cold War by both countries, are diplomatic aspects that can be addressed to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. Although, since Armenia’s independence, interactions in the military field between Yerevan and Hanoi haven’t been noticed, the current positive evolution of Vietnam’s indigenous military industry bears closer scrutiny by the former Soviet republic.

Introduction:

International relations are not binary, and Armenia should go beyond either Russia or the West in its approach to foreign policy. Although, due to a number of factors, the Russian element remains essential in Armenian foreign policy, in the growing multipolar world and the war in Ukraine, further diversification and deepening of relations with several countries is paramount. The Asia continent, and more specifically Southeast Asia, is a region full of prospects for Armenia. In this context, Vietnam appears to be a country with which many unexplored areas of cooperation need to be explored. Although Armenia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, being part of the USSR did not prevent the Armenian people from developing ties with other countries. Indeed, since both were communist countries, a certain exchange existed during the seventy years of communist yoke in Armenia. Creating a diplomatic network and an independent foreign policy was part of the challenges that the young Armenian republic faced after independence. Armenia and Vietnam established diplomatic relations on July 14, 1992. Since then, although a number of legal frameworks were signed, both countries failed to create dynamic diplomatic relations. 

In the present circumstances, Vietnam fills many criteria that could enable both countries to strengthen their relations and cooperation in various fields. As Armenia is mainly dependent on major players in various areas, it is worth paying close attention to their relations with Vietnam. After the end of Vietnam War in 1973, Washington and Hanoi did not have any diplomatic relations (Atreides, 2023). The relations between both countries started to improve in the early 1990s, and culminated with the re-establishment of bilateral relations in 1995 (State.gov, 2021; Atreides, 2023). Since then, the Vietnam and the US have had flourishing relations. These ties are not only restrain to the economic sector, although the bilateral trade reached $90 billion in 2021, but also encompass other domains such as security, within the framework of the Quad plus (Atreides, 2023). On the contrary, the relationship between Vietnam and Russia are to be found in the relations the Socialist Republic had with the Soviet Union. Moscow was one of the earliest country that recognise Vietnam in 1950 (Nguyen, 2022). From that time, the USSR started to become more involved in the region, and provided military, humanitarian and financial help to Vietnam during its war against France (Nguyen, 2022). Although, Moscow supported the post-1954 status-quo in Vietnam, everything changed after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 (Nguyen, 2022). Indeed, the relations between the two countries got warmer and warmer, with the signature of bilateral agreement, military aid, clear diplomatic support from Moscow to Hanoi, but also the formation of Vietnamese public servant and military officers (Nguyen, 2022; Nguyen, 2022; Huong, 2022). From 1975 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 strong relations were maintained by both countries (Nguyen, 2022). Since then, efforts to redeveloped these traditional ties were successfully achieved, as testified by raising of relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership level in 2012 (Nguyen, 2022). A strengthening in the field of economy and energy are important (Nguyen, 2022), although the military domain, is the area in which both countries have interacted the most, Russia being the first supplier of weapons to Hanoi (trade.gov, 2022). With regard to the relationship between Vietnam and Russia, unlike other Asian countries, like Japan or South Kora, Vietnam decided not to impose economic sanctions against Russia in the wake of the ‘special operation in Ukraine/invasion of Ukraine, hence allowing the country to be absent of the Russian list of unfriendly country. Moreover, in 2015, Vietnam became the first country to sign a free trade agreement with the Russian-led EAEU, of which Armenia is a member state. The agreement “aims to create an open legal corridor, increase the competitiveness of goods, and open up trade flows between the two sides” (Bui & Ha, 2021, p91). In addition to these aspects, on a domestic level, Vietnam is a country that has experienced steady economic growth through successive economic reforms since the launch of Đổi Mới in 1986 (World Bank, 2023 (1)). Indeed, Vietnam has grown on average by 6,3% annually since 2000 and is expected to grow annually around 6% until at least 2028 (World Bank, 2023 (1)). Vietnam is a country with an important communist— the Communist Party is still in power— and French-language legacy, which can create room for Armenia to explore. Finally, concerning the military domain, apart from the fact that Russia represents a large part of the Vietnamese military arsenal, the country is home to a military industry mainly centred around light weaponry (trade.gov, 2022; Guarascio & Vu, 2022). However, the domestic military industry has recently been subjected to interesting trends (Guarascio & Vu, 2022). All these developments offer Armenia several opportunities worth exploring with Vietnam in the economic, diplomatic and military fields.

However, addressing such an unexplored subject represents some limitations. Since no scholar has approached this topic so far, this paper is to be based on primary and secondary quantitative and qualitative sources. Officials’ statements, news articles, the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the RoA and the Armenian Embassy to Vietnam, as well as data from SIPRI or economic data, represent the primary sources of the paper. 

This paper intends to approach the current relations between Armenia and Vietnam, the developments that are taking place and address some prospects that the author regards as worth exploring for the future of the relations between the two countries.

The current relations between the two countries 

The current state of diplomatic relations

Since 1992, the two countries have signed several legal agreements covering a wide range of topics. In 1992, the year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Vietnam, the two governments signed agreements on cultural, scientific-technical cooperation, on the reciprocal promotion and protection of investments, and on trade and economic cooperation (MFA, 2023). After a fruitful beginning, the development of the relations between both countries has remained in a stalemate for two decades. Indeed, it was only starting from 2012 that a new lease appeared. In 2012, an agreement on economic, trade, scientific and technical cooperation and a mutual waiver of visa requirements for diplomatic and official passport holders were signed. Then, in 2015, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam signed an agreement for cooperation in the field of culture for 2015-2018 (MFA, 2023). That same year, the Ministries of Justice of the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding. The last legal framework in 2019 regards cooperation in the field of tourism between the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Armenia and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (MFA, 2023). Four protocols were also signed during this thirty years. The first one is the protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, on July 14, 1992. The same year, in December, signed a protocol on cooperation between the two ministries of foreign affairs. This cooperation between the two ministries was deepened in June 2012, when the two countries signed a protocol on consultation between the two ministries of foreign affairs. A protocol on cooperation in the sphere of production and technology between the Ministry of Industry of the RoA and the Ministry of Heavy Industry of the SRV was signed the same day as the protocol on cooperation between the foreign ministries of Armenia and Vietnam (MFA, 2023). 

Some official visits also took place during these 30 years of diplomatic relations. Armenian officials visited Vietnam six times, while Vietnamese officials visited Armenia three times (MFA, 2023). However, the most critical diplomatic development that happened was the opening of an Armenian Embassy in Vietnam in 2013 (Kazhoyan, 2022). The Ambassador of Armenia to Vietnam is also accredited to Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines (Embassy of Armenia to Vietnam, 2023). The current Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Armenia to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vahram Kazhoyan, presented his credential to the President of Vietnam in May 2019 (Embassy of Armenia to Vietnam, 2023). On the contrary, the Vietnamese Ambassador to Russia is co-accredited in Armenia (Armenpress, 2022).

The current state of economic relations

When closer attention is paid to the economic relations between the two countries, one particular aspect is worth mentioning. The current trade balance between the two countries could be more favourable to Armenia. Indeed, while Armenia is exporting $1.23 million to Vietnam, Armenia imports $35.9 million from Vietnam (Oec.world, 2023). Armenia is mainly exporting tobacco (60.4%), chocolate (27.3%), processed tobacco (10.5%) and cheese (1.8%). Conversely, Armenia mainly imports broadcasting equipment (45%), coffee (8.7%), robbers (3.85%), and other machinery from Vietnam (Oec.world, 2023). 

Although an increase in bilateral trade could have been expected after signing the free trade agreement between Vietnam and the EAEU in 2015, significant changes have yet to be noticed. Indeed, even though Armenian exports to Vietnam slowly increased, from $0.2 million in 2014 to $1.4 million in 2022, these numbers are inconsistent (Trading Economics, 2023). After the signing of the free trade agreement in 2015, it took two years for Armenian exports to Vietnam to return to their 2015 levels. Since then, constant can be noticed (Trading Economics, 2023). 

What prospects to expect?

Although in the previous section, only the economic and diplomatic spheres were discussed, due to the absence of military relations between Yerevan and Hanoi (SIPRI, 2023 (1); SIPRI, 2023 (2)). Vietnam’s development of its own military industry and Armenia’s intention to diversify its arms supply are the factors that explain why, this paper will focus on the economic, diplomatic and military areas. All of the above is meant to understand what are the prospects that could be expected by Armenia for the further deepening of its relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. 

Trade opportunities to consider  

As mentioned in the introduction, the Vietnamese economy has experienced continuous growth since the beginning of the 21st century. Besides, a strong GPD growth skyrocketed from $31.17 billion in 2000 to $408.8 billion in 2022 (World Bank, 2023 (2)). This economic boom is also reflected in the Vietnamese population’s GDP per capita, which has increased more than ten times from its original number. Indeed, the GDP per capita rose from $394.6 in 2000 to $4,163.5 in 2022 (World Bank, 2023 (2)). Vietnam’s socio-economic composition is essential to consider when it comes to engaging in this market. In 2020 the middle-income class with a monthly salary of $714 represented 33 million people in Vietnam (Saigooner, 2023). According to the National Master Plan for 2021 – 2030 and a vision for 2050, the government expects the economy and the GPD per capita to continue to grow. The plan foresees turning Vietnam into a developing and high-middle-income country with a modern industry (VNTR, 2022). This paper expects the GDP per capita to reach $7,500 by the end of the decade (VNTR, 2022). The vision for 2050 aims to make Vietnam a high-income developed country with a GDP per capita of $32,000. All these expectations also imply other developments in the domain of the economy, education, for example. These perspectives create a number of economic opportunities that await to be explored by both countries.

The Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to Vietnam mentioned several channels through which this cooperation could be intensified. The Armenian-Vietnamese Joint Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation and the Armenian-Vietnamese business forum are two platforms through which solutions and perspectives can be elaborate to improve the trade between the two countries (Kazhoyan, 2023). Discussions are currently underway, intending to hold a session in 2023 in Yerevan (Kazhoyan, 2023). The expansion of bilateral trade is an essential element for deepening the relations between the two countries. Nowadays, Armenia is mainly exporting tobacco and chocolate to Vietnam. Nevertheless, Ambassador Kazhoyan expressed in various interviews his vision for diversifying and intensifying trade between the two countries. Except for the possibility to export dairy and meat products, fresh and dried fruits, and watches to Vietnam, the Armenian Ambassador also expressed the option of exporting Armenian Ararat cognacs and wines (Kazhoyan, 2023). The possibility for Armenia to export apricot to Vietnam is actually discussed with the Masan Group of Vietnam (Kazhoyan, 2022). With regard to the export of Armenian alcohol to Vietnam, it is essential to note that Vietnam is the second Southeast Asian country that has the highest alcohol consumption rate. Indeed, on average, an adult consumes “8.3 litres of pure alcohol per year, which is equivalent to roughly 170 litres of beer per year” (Vietnamnet, 2022). This alcohol consumption is mainly centred around beer and wine (Vietnamnet, 2022). Coupling this element with the current middle-income class and the forecast of the Vietnamese government creates prospects for Armenia to explore exporting alcohol to Vietnam. Beers and pure alcohol are mentioned as the primary alcohols consumed by Vietnamese adults. Exporting Armenian beers and pure alcohol should be considered alongside Armenian cognac and wines. On the potential imports from Vietnam that Armenia considers, Ambassador Kazhoyan mentioned “fruits, computers and computer parts, electronics, rice, coffee, fruits and other products” (Kazhoyan, 2023). 

In addition to trade, tourism is also an area experiencing intensification. Although travel agencies already organise group trips for short (3-4 days) and long periods (3-4 weeks), this creates hopes for an intensification of cooperation in this sector of the economy. (Kazhoyan, 2022). Talks are also ongoing between the Embassy of Armenia to Vietnam and the Sun Group to invest in building a cable car system to Mount Tatev (Kazhoyan, 2022). The establishment of direct air communication between the two countries is also exposed to ultimately increase tourism and trade (Kazhoyan, 2021; Kazhoyan, 2023). Yerevan views the possibility of establishing direct flights between Hanoi and Yerevan to turn Armenia’s major airport into a transit stop for Vietnamese airlines that intend to reach Europe (Kazhoyan, 2021). 

A prospect that would be interesting to be approached by Armenia to increase its trade with Vietnam is the possible management of a terminal in Iran’s Chabahar Port by Armenia. Indeed, in May 2023, Armenia expressed its interest in managing one terminal (Atonov, 2023). Being located in the Indian Ocean, this port would ultimately help Armenia to have better communication routes with South-Asian countries. Three elements would allow Armenia to minimise the customs fees in this process. The Part X of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea enables landlocked countries to get access to the sea. According to Article 125 of this convention, ‘land-locked States shall enjoy the freedom of transit through the territory of transit States by all means of transport.’ (UNCLOS, 1982) Article 127 holds that the landlocked country should not be subject to customs duties, taxes or other charges in a transit country (UNCLOS, 1982). Although Iran signed but did not ratify the UNCLOS, according to Article 18 of the Convention of Vienna, Iran should not undermine the application of the treaty (Pogis & Wolfrum, 2019). Armenia became part of the UNCLOS in December 2002 (Un.org, 2023). This legal framework and the good relations between Armenia and Iran could help Armenia to avoid paying fees when transiting through the Iranian territory to export and import goods to Southeast Asia. In addition to this legal point, in the context of the EAEU-Iran free-trade agreement (Boltuc, 2023) and the EAEU-Vietnam free-trade agreement (Bui & Ha, 2021), an increase in trade between Armenia and Vietnam could drastically increase. Hence prospects for turning Armenia into a gateway for Vietnamese goods in the EAEU exist.

A diplomatic field full of opportunities

In the international arena, it is common to notice in the speech of States’ officials an emphasis on the old bonds that tie two countries. As an example, the old historical and cultural ties that bond Armenia and Iran are often stressed by respective officials to describe Armenian-Iranian relations (Zellmi, 2023). In the context of the relations between Armenia and Vietnam, the Armenian Ambassador to Vietnam, Vahram Kazhoyan, mentioned the old Armenian presence in Vietnam. Indeed, Ambassador Kazhoyan declared that Armenian presence, trade and influence in the region and, more specifically, Vietnam can be traced back to the 12th century (Kazhoyan, 2023). These links must not be confined solely to statements by officials of the Republic of Armenia but must also be used to explore different diplomatic initiatives with Vietnam. Indeed, common historical work between Armenian and Vietnamese historians shall be examined to study this topic or events about this topic should be held at the Armenian Embassy in Vietnam. Initiatives on this theme cannot be restricted to the two possible initiatives outlined herein; rather, efforts to approach this subject as a means of enhancing Armenian-Vietnamese relations ought to be encouraged.

Armenia and Vietnam recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Diplomatic School of Armenia and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, which includes lectures for both Vietnamese and Armenian students and exchange of professors’ visits and their lectures in both institutions (Kazhoyan, 2023). In the educational sector, the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi (USTH) and the French University of Armenia (UFAR) signed a cooperation agreement (Kazhoyan, 2022). This agreement aims to provide academic and cultural exchanges between the students of both countries in science, technology, engineering and economics. These two initiatives are regarded in the context of a long-standing cultural and student exchange tradition. It is common to see recurrent references by Armenian and Vietnamese officials to the fact that the SSR of Armenia hosted many Vietnamese students during the 50s to early 90s (Kazhoyan, 2021; Nguyen, 2022; Huong, 2022). The Vietnam-Armenia Friendship Association, established by former Vietnamese students in 2014, plays a vital role in trying to deepen the cultural diplomacy between the two countries and bring closer together Armenian and Vietnamese people (VietnamPlus, 2015; Nguyen, 2020; Huong, 2022). This association recolted $5000 in 2020 for Armenia in the context of the “United Against the Pandemic” Campaign of the All-Armenian Fund (Himnadram, 2020; Nguyen, 2020). The Embassy of Armenia to Vietnam closely works with this association to celebrate major holidays and events (Kazhoyan, 2022). Taking into consideration the above mentioned factors, it would be beneficial for the development of Armenia-Vietnam relations to consider taking steps to expand cultural diplomacy with Vietnam, and prospects of holding these kinds of events in Armenia are interesting to reflect on. The idea of a constant effort towards improving diplomatic ties would be worth being a priority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia. The current ambassador’s efforts to establish Yerevan, Hanoi, Gyumri, and Ho Chi Minh City follow this optic (Kazhoyan, 2021). 

Apart from the old historical ties and the communist legacy, Armenia and Vietnam also have a connexion with the French language. The two countries are members of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (Francophonie.org, 2023). The deepening of the relations between the two republics can be explored through the ties they share with the French language. Having an Embassy in Vietnam and Hanoi being the organisation’s headquarters in the Asian and Pacific regions (Francophonie.org, 2023), organising common events that show bonds with the French language and its legacy in the two countries could be an opportunity to be addressed. 

Nevertheless, to reach another level and better coordinate the diplomatic, economic and military fields, the Armenian government should pursue a proactive policy aiming at bringing Vietnam to consider the opportunity to open an Embassy in Armenia. Establishing a Vietnamese embassy in Armenia would be a significant impetus for developing the relations between the two countries and their population. 

Armenia must keep an eye on the future development of Vietnam military industry

Contrary to the economic and diplomatic field, Armenia and Vietnam do not have any concrete relations in the military domain. According to SIPRI, there have never been any arms purchases on either side (SIPRI, 2023 (1); SIPRI, 2023 (2)). However, the fact that there has been no concrete engagement between the two countries in this field so far does not mean that no prospects exist to develop relations in the military sector. Vietnam has been experiencing a steady increase in military spending since the early 2000s; a 700 increase was noticed from 2003 to 2018, reaching a military budget of $5.5 billion (trade.gov, 2022). In the $9.07 billion arms import during the period between 1995 to 2021, Russia represents 81.6 per cent of the purchased (trade.gov, 2022; Guarascio & Vu, 2022). However, since 2022 and the war in Ukraine, Vietnam has started diversifying its imports (Guarascio & Vu, 2022). Some countries began to appear in Vietnam imports, such as India, Israel, the US or some European countries (Guarascio & Vu, 2022). In the context of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, Vietnam has paid a particular focus on maritime-related questions in the military sector (trade.gov, 2022). 

Vietnam’s security policy is based on the 2019 Vietnam National Defence white paper (Ministry of National Defence, 2019). The policy that arises from this white paper is often referred to four-no policy and one-depend (trade.gov, 2022). It basically stresses that Vietnam follows a non-aligned foreign and security policy, which encompass the fact that the country does not want to be part of any military alliance, does not take a side, does not accept foreign military bases and promote the non-use of force (Ministry of National Defence, 2019). The one-depend stresses that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries on the basis of respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial unity and integrity as well as fundamental principles of international law, cooperation for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community” (Ministry of National Defence, 2019, p24).

Vietnam has recently been trying to develop a domestic military industry. Although this industry is mainly based on the maritime aspect of the military, the country already has a basis regarding “armed vehicles and light weapons, such as anti-tank rockets, grenade launchers and machine guns” (Guarascio & Vu, 2022). The high-tech system is also under development, with an emphasised put on UAVs (Guarascio & Vu, 2022). It is important to note that most of these weapons, and more specifically in the high-tech domain, are developed in partnership with foreign firms (Guarascio & Vu, 2022). Israel is a major country in this transfer of military technology to Vietnam (trade.gov, 2022). Thus, although still in a development stage, the Vietnamese military industry deserves to be closely monitored by Armenia with a view to future purchases if these weapons prove to be efficient and can be easily integrated into the Armenian army system. However, a closer look should be taken at anti-tank systems, grenade launchers and light weapons, which form part of Vietnam’s already well-established military industry and are undergoing exciting developments with the help of foreign firms.

Conclusion

After presenting the realities of the relationship between Vietnam and Armenia from an economic and diplomatic point of view, current developments in relations in the economic, diplomatic and military fields were discussed. The economic and diplomatic fields are the domains in which the most developments have been noticed so far. Nonetheless, a close eye shall be kept on any development in the Vietnamese military industry. In addition to the prospects enumerated in the part of the paper addressing the economic part, it is worth mentioning that Armenian government officials and businessmen should draw inspiration from Vietnamese successes in industry, services and agriculture that could apply to Armenia. The current developments and prospects in the diplomatic field between Armenia and Vietnam are mainly focused on the cultural aspect. The cultural aspect allows addressing not only the respective countries’ governments but also the local populations. Of the three domains approached in this paper, the military aspect is the less developed. However, in the context of the Armenian desire to diversify its arms supply sources and the expansion of a Vietnamese military industry to high-tech systems and other types of weapons, officials in Vietnam and in the Ministry of Defence should continue to monitor any interesting progress in this area. Accordingly, for the sake of improving its relations with Vietnam, Armenia has to conduct pro-active diplomacy but also bottom-up diplomacy by addressing all strata of Vietnamese society to position Armenia as an indispensable partner for Vietnam.

In fine, although little-known, relations between Armenia and Vietnam are undergoing some exciting developments, yet the prospects for stronger relations and cooperation in the economic, diplomatic and military fields are plentiful.

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