Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to expand military supplies to Vietnam, a move that looks set to raise concerns from Beijing as tensions over the South China Sea linger.
In the latest sign of deepening military ties between the former allies, Putin made the announcement yesterday during a one-day state visit to Vietnam.
While still in a headlock with Vietnam over maritime territorial disputes, China sees closer Russia and Vietnam military ties as a move to counterbalance its rising power in the region.
Beijing is likely to be closely watching any discussion on future military co-operation between Russia and Vietnam during Putin's visit, according to Zhang Mingliang , an expert on China's relations with Southeast Asian countries from Guangzhou's Jinan University.
"Russia has been the biggest supporter of Vietnam in the South China Sea," said Zhang, citing submarine deals and a Russian oil company's presence in Vietnam's claimed waters.
One key area of scrutiny, Zhang said, would be any possible co-operation between the two countries in the Cam Ranh Bay, a strategically important naval base in the south central coast of Vietnam. Russia will reportedly provide technicians to help Vietnam prepare the base.
Russia has been Vietnam's biggest weapons supplier. Last week, Russia handed over the first of six Kilo diesel-electric submarines to Vietnam. Military analysts say the vessels would significantly boost Vietnam's efforts to create a deterrent against China's naval power.
Relations between China and Southeast Asian neighbours, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, have been strained by territorial disputes in the South China Sea over the past few years. Since taking power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made improving neighbourly ties a priority.
After a "constructive and open" meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang yesterday, Putin said the two had specific discussions on military co-operation.
"We plan to expand the supplies of Russian military products to Vietnam," he said.
Also high on the agenda were energy agreements that would explore resources in the Arctic and build 13 nuclear plants in Vietnam.
"Russia is working with Vietnam not only to build the country's first nuclear power plant, but also train staff and set up a science and technology centre," Putin said.
Russia's Rosneft yesterday signed an agreement to allow Vietnam's Petrovietnam to explore oil and gas in the Pechora Sea in the Arctic off northwest Russia. Russian state monopoly Gazprom also agreed to jointly invest with Petrovietnam in the US$3 billion Dung Quat refinery in central Vietnam
Other agreements reportedly include economics, trade, investment, science and technology.
Media reports in Vietnam and Russia hailed Putin's visit as a move to further enhance bilateral ties, which was upgraded to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" last year.
Putin will leave Vietnam for South Korea today.
Additional reporting Associated Press and Reuters