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Australia can count on Vietnam to support AUKUS

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That only a handful of people in Canberra knew that the AUKUS pact was being negotiated is a minor concern for those living on China’s borders.

Any discussion about how AUKUS is perceived in the region should take in the view from Vietnam, which sees the agreement involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States as self-evidently in Australia’s national interest. Hanoi sees AUKUS as both a trilateral security alliance and a vehicle to enable Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines using technology provided by the UK and US. It does not have a problem with that.

AUKUS has emerged as the Indo-Pacific region observes China’s power politics, increasingly aggressive and bullying actions in the South China Sea and coercion in trade and international relations. The Vietnamese believe the best response to a threat is to be well prepared for the worst, and that is evident in their defence posture. They’ve no difficulty believing that Australians see the threat to their own national security as real and imminent. They also recognise that AUKUS is about Australia’s future strategic preparedness.

On the most optimistic estimate, Australia will not have a nuclear-powered submarine from this agreement for at least 10 years. It has paid an immediate price, souring bilateral relations with countries in Europe, Asia and Southeast Asia. France’s irritation was understandable, and perhaps intensified by a view that a low value was placed on the only European country with significant military forces in the Pacific.

Unsurprisingly, the sharpest criticism came from China, which characterised AUKUS as reflecting a ‘cold-war mentality’. While diplomatic niceties were observed at the AUKUS launch so that the country of concern wasn’t mentioned by the three leaders, it’s clear that it is intended to counter China’s aggressive posture, especially its actions in the South China Sea. Beijing has gone far beyond making claims based on contested historical evidence and rights rejected by an international tribunal in The Hague in 2016, to create and occupy terrain with significant military capabilities.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have reacted to AUKUS in diverse ways. Indonesia and Malaysia quickly voiced their individual concerns that it could lead to a regional arms race. They subsequently voiced their opposition jointly at a media conference in Jakarta. The Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers appeared to put pressure on their ASEAN counterparts to reach a consensus on AUKUS at the 38th and 39th ASEAN summits being held this week.

On the other hand, the Philippines has indicated its support, seeing AUKUS as enhancing Australia’s power and helping maintain the regional balance. Singapore, a comprehensive strategic partner of Australia and a longstanding US ally, did not indicate support but expressed hope that ‘AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture’. Similarly, Vietnam, an increasingly influential voice in the region and an Australian strategic partner since 2018, has not indicated support or opposition to AUKUS or to Australia getting nuclear-powered submarines. A Vietnamese spokeswoman just emphasised the need for all nations to contribute to peaceful development in the region. The remaining ASEAN members—Brunei (the 2021 chair), Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand—have been silent on AUKUS.

Hanoi’s neutrality on AUKUS and Australia’s submarines can be construed as hidden support rather than opposition. Vietnam, as the target of coercive Chinese action, strongly supports an international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific which aligns with the AUKUS commitment.

Vietnam emphasises its strategic relations with all three AUKUS countries and is increasing political trust with Australia in particular. Hanoi’s pragmatic foreign policy has made the national interest the country’s top priority.

Vietnam’s interpretation of an international rules-based order hinges on the fundamental principles of equality, as spelled out in the preamble of its declaration of independence and endorsed at the 1955 Asian–African Conference in Bandung, and the observance by all nations of a common set of rules.

When, in 1979, China launched its bloody month-long invasion of Vietnam in support of Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime, Vietnam called that an act of hegemonism and a betrayal of the ‘Bandung spirit’. The two countries normalised diplomatic ties in 1991, but Vietnam is considered a little brother of lesser size and power. Therefore, a rules-based order is understood in Vietnam as a pushback against inequality. However, China’s perception of ‘big’ and ‘small’ countries does not only apply to Vietnam.

At the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, stared at his Singaporean counterpart and declared: ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’ Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China’s ‘big country diplomacy’ and Mao-era ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy have brought aggression and bullying over the South China Sea and in the coercive trade action used against Australia after its call for an international investigation into the causes of the Covid-19 pandemic. Chinese diplomats frequently respond to external criticism aggressively and express hostility towards their host countries.

China’s disregard for internationally accepted rules is most obvious in the South China Sea. In 2016, it refused to recognise the ruling of an arbitral tribunal in favour of the Philippines, which found China had breached the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The decade-long delay in having a rigorous code of conduct accepted by all claimants to settle disputes has mainly been caused by China’s insistence on having its own claims articulated by its ‘nine-dash line’ argued on a historical basis that is at odds with UNCLOS.

Meanwhile, China has quickly militarised its artificial islands in the South China Sea, making repeated incursions into other claimants’ waters and preventing them from fishing within their special economic zones.

The US and Australia have consistently indicated support for Vietnam in responding to China’s coercion. Speaking in Hanoi in 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared: ‘Vietnam matters to Australia.’ Morrison said that if any of Australia’s neighbours were left to suffer coercion, ‘then we are all diminished’. In July, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called out ‘aggressor states coercing regional neighbours’.

Hanoi has not yet formally replaced the century-old ‘Asia–Pacific’ with ‘Indo-Pacific’ in its foreign policy documents. This sensitivity by Vietnamese leaders in their public statements may reflect a wish to avoid Beijing claiming Vietnam is siding with the West. However, Vietnam supports multilateral statements such as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and welcomes such initiatives as long as they contribute to ‘peace, stability, cooperation and development of the region based on rules and respect for international law, as well as respecting the legitimate rights and interests of all countries, including ASEAN’s central role in the evolving regional structure’.

Hanoi’s stance, tempered by realism, is constrained by the historical ‘four nos’—no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil, and no use of, or threat to use, force in international relations. However, the country’s interests are evidently aligned towards positions embraced and boosted by Australia, the UK and the US, and supported by others including Japan, India and the European Union.

Vietnam implicitly opposes China’s incubation of an order in which small countries pay deference to a big country and international affairs are governed by Beijing’s rules.

Vietnam is a strategic partner of Australia and the UK and a comprehensive partner of the US. But former Vietnamese diplomats take the view that the Vietnam–US relationship is already of a strategic nature given their all-embracing and profound cooperation. President Joe Biden’s administration has suggested a formal upgrade to a strategic relationship and many would argue that’s just a matter of time.

Bilateral ties between Vietnam and Australia continue to deepen. In an online talk with his Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, in May, Morrison proposed elevating the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2023, the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties. That would make Vietnam the second ASEAN nation, after Singapore, with which Australia has such a close relationship—noting that Singapore is a special case.

When Chinh met with Australia’s ambassador to Hanoi, Robyn Mudie, this month, the Vietnamese media emphasised the growing trust between the two countries over international and regional affairs and their shared concerns.

Hanoi’s strategic relationship with the individual AUKUS countries is deepening with increased defence cooperation as Vietnam aims to boost its self-defence capabilities to protect its sovereignty.

Its de facto shift from its strict ‘three nos’ to ‘four nos’ defence policy reflects China’s frequent encroachment on Vietnam’s waters and continuing aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Pragmatism has prompted Vietnam to consider developing defence and military relations with other countries while qualifying this with ‘depending on circumstances and specific situations’, as stated in its 2019 defence policy. There’s no suggestion it would cooperate with AUKUS in an alliance, but there’s no hurdle to continuing cooperation with each AUKUS member.

While Vietnam is committed not to join military alliances, it has no reason to reject an alliance that poses no threat to its national security or interests and which is likely to be of benefit.

It sees AUKUS as being like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (involving the US, India, Japan and Australia) as in an alliance it can leverage to improve its self-defence capabilities and garner collective action to resist China’s coercion and bullying.

Vietnam’s veiled support for AUKUS is consistent with its pragmatic foreign policy, pursuing the national interest as the supreme priority in its diplomacy. Vietnam understands that it needs investment, trade and technology from the US, the EU, Japan, the UK, India, Australia and other countries to achieve its centenary development goals. Consequently, it will not side with China to oppose AUKUS as it has done with the Quad. Moreover, Vietnam is fully conscious of where immediate threats to the national interest and security come from, while it struggles with a huge trade deficit with China.

Australia has time to persuade its neighbours that AUKUS is a win for the long term. If Australia needs to garner support for this arrangement, it can count on Vietnam both bilaterally and as a member of ASEAN.

The suggested move to an agreed comprehensive strategic partnership in 2023 is evidence of increased political trust between the two countries. Leveraging on that, Vietnam will use the consensus card to ensure that the language of any ASEAN joint statement on AUKUS would be more formalistic than critical.

By Hai Hong Nguyen – The Strategist – 27 octobre 2021 

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