Earlier this week the President of the Republic of Vietnam Tran Dai Quang chose Singapore to make one of his first international appearances in a three day visit that underlined the importance of the ties of that bind these two countries. Singapore and Vietnam are probably the only members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who have consistently taken a strategic view of regional security. Now they are determined to advocate for ASEAN's survival.
As the coming ASEAN Summit loom into view, the organisation's role and credibility in regard to regional security remains top of mind. Vietnam and Singapore were both frustrated by the outcome of the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane in July, which followed the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ad hoc tribunal ruling on the South China Sea. In Vientiane, Cambodia sabotaged ASEAN's unity by vetoing a statement that specifically mentioned the Hague ruling. The four-point consensus announced by Beijing earlier in the year suggests Brunei is also increasingly intent on observing China's point of view. The result of these developments, and the apparently limited interest in ASEAN demonstrated by the leadership of many other South East nations, is that Singapore and Vietnam appear increasingly isolated in their views on strategic matters. Tightening bilateral ties, especially in relation to security, is a logical move.
While Vietnam has direct interests in the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes, Singapore has an economic interest in maritime stability and freedom of navigation that guarantees ‘business as usual’. Other factors also bind the two when it comes to their attachment to regional institutions. Both are stable regimes with developed strategic thinking. Continuity in domestic politics means Singapore still views ASEAN with the importance that was attached by its founding fathers. This ‘institutional memory’ has been interrupted in Southeast Asian democracies that have experienced generational change in their leadership. For its part Vietnam, which joined ASEAN in 1995, clearly recognises ASEANs value as a diplomatic tool. Both Vietnam and Singapore are displeased with China’s active attempts to undermine ASEAN’s multilateralism. While Vietnam’s hedging environment has changed significantly over the past couple of years, compared to that of Singapore, both follow the principle of sustaining a balanced approach to Sino-US great power competition.
For Vietnam, given its own dispute with China, the stakes are higher and it has less room to manoeuvre. Yet it is critical for both Singapore and Hanoi that ASEAN stays relevant. For Vietnam, precisely because of the South China Sea disputes. For Singapore because of its role as coordinator of ASEAN-China relations that stretches beyond the rotational term and because it values ASEAN as a diplomatic 'force multiplier' for countries in South East Asia.
Beyond ASEAN, there are plenty of incentives for the two nations to extend bilateral cooperation. Singapore is now Vietnam’s third largest investor. Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP), a joint initiative that began 20 years ago, has now expanded to seven provinces. Last year, Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia opened an office in Hanoi. Singapore is also Vietnam’s favourite destination for tourism, education and medical services. These economic and people-to-people links are increasingly being mirrored by close ties between armed forces. The Singapore navy was the first to enter the Cam Ranh Bay following Vietnam's decision to receive foreign warships. Regular joint dialogues cover a range of activities and interests and in 2013 the two signed a strategic partnership opening pathways for more diverse exchanges.
During Tran Dai Quang’s visit this week, he reiterated Vietnam’s adherence to the rule of law in safeguarding peace, shared its concerns about the South China Sea disputes, and stressed the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common challenges. In the past, Singapore-Vietnam relations have tended to the placid but their bonds are strengthening. In a region that is increasingly uneasy, the two clearly see much value in working together.
Photo: Vadim Savitsky/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images