Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Vietnam and Australia: Common interests should be reflected in closer ties

Vietnam and Australia: Common interests should be reflected in closer ties

Richard Woolcott recently called for 'a much more sustained conversation with our neighbouring countries in Asia and the south-west Pacific' ('The Turnbull era: Eight Ideas for Fine-Tuning Australian Foreign Policy') and suggested some ways to achieve it, including: greater engagement with regional forums, a clarified approach to the US-China relationship, and prioritising Indonesia.

All very worthy, But what about improving bilateral ties with more south-east Asian nations, and Vietnam in particular? In addition to our historical links (Australia established an embassy in Hanoi in 1973, in contrast to the US which did not normalise ties until1995), there are two straightforward and obvious reasons why Vietnam should figure more prominently in our foreign policy.

Firstly, we are both middle-ranking nations looking to diversify ties and, secondly, we both seek to manage relationships with the US and China which, for historical, economic and strategic reasons, are particularly complicated.

Then there are the security tensions in the region, highlighted by the USS Lassen's recent trip into the South China Sea. Given the standoffs between Vietnam and China last year over China's oil rig in Vietnam's EEZ, having a good relationship with one of the nations in our region most willing to stand up to Beijing would be useful for both sides, especially as Canberra's and Hanoi's goals for settlement do not differ much. [fold]

Malcolm Turnbull is obviously paying attention. His main foreign policy focus in his first TV interview as PM was the South China Sea and China's island building and general aggression. He noted that this was driving Vietnam and the US closer together. I made the same observation during General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong's historic White House visit a few months ago. There is no doubt the US is paying more attention to Vietnam. The White House visit was important but since APEC 2006 and WTO accession in 2007, there have been number of high-level visits including several US secretaries of state and defense. It's clear Vietnam has been an important part of the American 'pivot' to Asia, US criticisms of Vietnam's human rights record notwithstanding.

Vietnam's foreign policy imperatives have been the same for some time now: multilateralism and friends everywhere. Hanoi has longstanding relationships with Russia and India and historic (if not particularly strategically useful) friendships with Cuba and the Czech Republic. Greater engagement with regional and global organisations has also been a goal. As DFAT notes:

Vietnam pursues an explicit policy of comprehensive international integration and takes an active role in international affairs, highlighted by its hosting of APEC in 2006, accession to the World Trade Organization in 2007, its non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council in 2008-09 and chairing of ASEAN in 2010. Vietnam was recently elected to the Human Rights Council (2014-16) and is currently campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council (2020-21).

Vietnam also has good relations with some of Australia's more important Asian partners, such as Japan, and strong trade and investment ties with Korea and Singapore.

Given Vietnam is looking outward, and the fact that Hanoi and Canberra have some common goals (from regional collaboration and South China Sea issues to balanced multilateralism), we have a good starting point from which to improve our ties and relations. At the very least, we should be paying a little more attention to this 90-million strong nation, which has a large part of its diaspora in Australia.

So, how to go about it? During Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's visit to Australia this year, the Comprehensive Partnership struck between Vietnam and Australia in 2009 was extended to become an Enhanced Comprehensive Partnership. There has been some speculation it will progress to a strategic partnership but, assuming we will not be upgrading our relationship officially anytime soon, what areas might Australia and Vietnam collaborate on and what would the benefits be?

Maritime security and the South China Sea would be one. Australia recently held naval drills with India and, along with much of the region, Vietnam is investing in submarines. It will take possession of all six of its Russian Kilo-class subs next year. Given the changing security landscape in the oceans surrounding Australia, more naval engagement and submarine drills might be useful.

Pushing ASEAN to take a firmer stand on the South China Sea might also be something the two nations can work on. If Australia decides to seek ASEAN membership, (as urged by Richard Woolcott), Vietnam would be a nice supporter to have.

Trade-wise, the two nations already do reasonable business though we don't have an FTA. Given both nations have signed up to the Trans Pacific Partnership, we probably don't need an FTA, especially as the areas most likely to yield growth (such as education) are not dependent upon such agreements.

Aid investment is one area that is already evolving. In this financial year, Australia will give Vietnam development aid worth $90 million, including $58.4 million in direct aid. As Vietnam's economy has progressed, the focus is shifting from traditional aid to an economic partnership. According to Ambassador Hugh Borrowman, Australia wants this partnership to 'share lessons from Australia's own reform experiences, find innovative ways to maximize the reach of public resources and leverage greater private sector investment'. Encouraging the private sector is a sound route to take, especially given so many of Vietnam's economic woes in the past decade can be traced back to shambling and badly managed state-owned enterprises.

Cultural exchanges may also make a certain amount of sense, though Asia in general struggles to gain much of a soft power foothold in Australia. Vietnam's advantages are a large diaspora (including several Vietnamese-Australian celebrities such as chef Luke Nguyen and comedian Anh Do), and a very popular cuisine. Australia's advantages include a highly regarded education system that is relatively close by.

Will Vietnam's human rights record complicate things? I've written previously on Australia's approach to human rights in Vietnam, which differs from that of the US. Australia rarely says much publicly over abuses such as the locking up of bloggers or activists whilst very public engagement on these issues (and the prohibition of sales of lethal military equipment) is a central tenet of US engagement. Australia does conduct human rights dialogues but they usually take place behind closed doors. This suits Hanoi, of course. Whilst there is politically active diaspora in Australia (the old Republic of Vietnam flag has just been officially recognised by the City of Maribyrnong in Melbourne), it exerts nowhere near the pressure felt in the US.

Human rights defenders may be right in decrying this state of affairs but it does mean that Hanoi's hardliners view us with less suspicion than they do America; we pose less of a threat to 'peaceful evolution'. At the same time, bloggers and dissidents cannot be used as 'bargaining chips' as released poet and dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu has suggested in the past. In other words, Vietnam can't keep a stash of dissidents locked up in order to release them when it wants something from Australia.

What will all this do for Australia? We need a better understanding of Asia and a fast growing, multilateral nation like Vietnam, with whom we have had ties for over 40 years, is a good place to get it.

Vietnam is willing to stand up to China whilst carefully managing its longstanding and complicated relationship with Beijing and seeking closer ties with the US. In a way, this is the inverse of Australia's US-China balancing act; it's more than likely we can learn from each other.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Khanh Hmoong

You may also be interested in