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Why improving Vietnam–UK relations matters for the Indo-Pacific

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Vietnam’s prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh, made a very successful trip to the United Kingdom in early November, putting the rapidly improving relations between the two countries into the spotlight. 

The visit to the COP26 climate summit took place a year after Britain and Vietnam ‘refreshed’ their 10-year-old strategic partnership with a new set of bilateral commitments. Chinh was accompanied by a large delegation, and many side meetings were held with British officials and organisations. Clearly, there is interest in further developing the bilateral relationship.

So, what are the reasons for these deepening ties and in which areas might the two governments increase their ambitions? The first question is relatively easy to answer: both Vietnam and the UK face a changed geostrategic environment. Although Vietnam’s leadership takes care to avoid overemphasising strategic issues in bilateral ties, it’s clear that a key driver of the new relationship is the intensifying geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam has opted for a ‘multidirectional’ foreign policy and is reaching out to new partners, particularly those which share an interest in pushing back against the strategic challenges that Vietnam faces.

Another factor is Brexit. Vietnam now sees the UK as a more independent actor and Britain is looking to new opportunities in the Indo-Pacific. This ‘tilt’ towards the region was announced earlier this year in the British government’s integrated review of foreign policy. The UK sees Vietnam, a country of more than 100 million people, as a partner for increased trade, investment and diplomatic cooperation. With the UK now formally a ‘dialogue partner’ of ASEAN, it needs to work more closely with the organisation’s members both individually and collectively.

That said, it’s important to remain clear-eyed about the fundamental differences between the two countries’ political systems and strategic dispositions. Neither side is likely to transform its governance or its international orientation in the short or medium term. Nonetheless, there are many areas where cooperation can be expanded and others where new ground can be broken.

There are opportunities across the spectrum of diplomatic engagement, ranging from sharing strengths in fisheries management and managing the challenges caused by rising sea levels to collaborating on defence. Vietnam’s most pressing needs are in tackling Covid-19 and its consequences, generating sustainable economic growth, and coping with the many threats posed by climate change. These are all areas in which the two sides would do well to increase their ambitions and cooperation. Likewise, the UK and Vietnam have a strong shared interest in upholding and promoting an open international order. There are already examples of diplomatic and security cooperation between the two, and these can be further enhanced.

The key word for the future of UK–Vietnam relations is, and will remain, ‘trust’. Britain should expect change to be gradual, and both sides will take time to assess developments before pursuing further steps. Therefore, the focus should be on building trust by rendering assistance in areas that ‘cost’ relatively little for large gains—Covid-19, climate policy, infrastructure development and trade— before deepening cooperation in more complex areas such as security agreements.

The vaccination rollout in Britain is going well, with three-quarters of the total population having had their first dose and nearly two-thirds having had their second. Vietnam, after initially handling the Covid-19 outbreak well, is now struggling under new waves of the virus. An exchange of information on outbreak management and the provision of additional vaccine doses clearly signal the UK’s intent to be a reliable and trustworthy partner.

Vietnam made some major commitments on combating climate change at the COP26 summit that will create new areas for cooperation on energy generation and transmission. These efforts may come too late for some communities in the Mekong Delta, however, and the UK should support Vietnam’s efforts to protect human security for communities at risk from rising sea levels. This is a relatively small thing for the UK to do that will have large benefits for the Vietnamese people and will help promote trust between the two governments.

Vietnam has a particular need for infrastructure development to support its rapidly growing but bottlenecked economy. While it’s unlikely that UK companies will be able to compete with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean contractors in big tenders, there will be niches that British businesses are well placed to capitalise on. Both governments need to publicise and incentivise businesses to take advantage of the opportunities that exist under the UK–Vietnam free trade agreement.

Though the growing relationship between the UK and Vietnam is broad and extensive, there are areas where security cooperation is desirable to both sides. In October, a British warship, HMS Richmond, conducted the Royal Navy’s first ‘passing exercise’ with a Vietnamese counterpart. Although a low-key event, it was a milestone. Maritime cooperation is likely to continue in the future, ranging from ‘softer’ issues such as hydrography, maritime domain awareness and legal training to exchanges with HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, the two British offshore patrol vessels now deployed in the region.

Britain is unlikely to become Vietnam’s premier diplomatic partner, but with recent visits by Ben Wallace and Dominic Raab, the British defence and foreign secretaries, there’s scope for the two sides to construct a loose and non-binding defence and security roadmap together. It could include a long-term but realistic goal, such as the establishment of a 2+2 or ‘extensive strategic partnership’—similar to that Vietnam has with Japan—over a five-year period.

UK–Vietnam relations are currently ‘good, healthy and stable’. Given the intensification of geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific, it’s important that they remain that way while developing in intensity and trust. Although the relationship between the two countries is often overlooked, the UK can play a valuable role in Vietnam’s developing multidirectional foreign policy, just as Vietnam can help facilitate Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt.

Above all, the British government needs to avoid the perception that it is pushing Vietnam to choose between its international partners. But as they boost their cooperation, Hanoi and London would do well to coordinate even further with like-minded partners such as Australia and Japan to reduce duplication and competition, as well as to generate a network of Indo-Pacific partners with a deep commitment to upholding an open international order.

Par Bill Hayton – ASPI / The Strategist – November 24, 2021

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