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Vietnam-Australia relations at 50

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The past half-century has witnessed a remarkable convergence of interests between the two nations, and there is a promise of closer cooperation to come.

On February 26, Australia and Vietnam celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic ties. When Bruce Woodberry arrived in Hanoi in his role as the Australian Chargé d’Affaires on July 28, 1973, to formally mark the opening of diplomatic ties between the two countries, it is likely that he and his Vietnamese counterparts could never have thought that they would one day become strategic partners, sharing strategic and core values in a region that could become a battleground within those horizons of major powers.

The bilateral relations could have not risen to this strategic level without a paramount political determination and the strategic vision of the leadership of the two nations. They were not only able to override the challenges and invisible barriers of the past, but also to leverage historical bonds to advance a special relationship underpinned by the many ways in which Australia stands out as both “the first” and “the only” with regard to Vietnam.

In 1995, standing by the side of the visiting Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Secretary General in Canberra, the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating told the press that Australia aspired to have not just a normal relationship, but a partnership with Vietnam.

Time and political determination from both sides have fulfilled Keating’s aspirations in the years since. In September 2009, Vietnam and Australia advanced from a regular partnership to a “Comprehensive Partnership” during CPV Secretary-General Nong Duc Manh’s visit to Australia. In March 2018, in marking the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Vietnam and Australia upgraded their comprehensive partnership to a “Strategic Partnership.” Vietnam then became the fourth nation within ASEAN, after Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, with which Australia has established a strategic partnership. If the two countries raised their strategic partnership one step further to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” as they are anticipated to do in line with this year’s 50th anniversary, Vietnam would become the third nation in ASEAN, after Indonesia and Singapore, with which Australia has done so.

Over the course of the past half-century, Vietnam and Australia have made some impressive achievements in the following three areas: economics, trade, and investment; education and training; and politics, defense, and security.

The economic front has always been a priority in the two countries’ relationship. When Vietnam opened its doors for foreign investment in the late 1980s, Australia was one of the top five investors in Vietnam with a total value of $300 million as of 1990 By 2018, this figure has increased to $2 billion, distributed among 458 active projects. On the other end, Vietnam has had 53 direct investment projects worth $247 million in Australia.

Bilateral trade also saw remarkable progress during this period. In 1988, two-way trade volume sat at just $ 8 million, but by the end of 2017 the figure had jumped up to nearly $10.1 billion; Australia was Vietnam’s 7th largest trading partner, while Vietnam was Australia’s 15th largest trading partner.

Direct flights between the two countries and the strategic partnership further boosted bilateral trade. In 2022, while Australia remained Vietnam’s 7th largest trading partner, Vietnam emerged to become Australia’s 10th largest trading partner for the first time. Total two-way trade value stood to close to $16 billion.

In addition, Australia has always been one of the largest providers of overseas development assistance to Vietnam, with millions of dollars per annum since Vietnam began its Doi Moi reforms in 1986.

Cooperation in the fields of education and training has also been a high note in these bilateral relations. Australia has emerged as one of the leading foreign education markets for Vietnamese students. In 2015, more than 20,000 Vietnamese students were enrolled in different types of education and training in Australia. This rose to more than 30,000 last year. Also in 2022, Vietnamese students accounted for 4 percent of the country’s international students, making Vietnam one of the top five countries with the most international student visa holders in Australia.

By May of last year, there were an estimated 70,000 Australian alumni in Vietnam. In the meantime, Vietnam has also become an increasingly popular destination for Australian students involved in short-term training courses or exchange programs under the New Colombo Plan (NCP). Between 2008 and 2013, more than 13,000 Australian students went to Vietnam. Since Vietnam joined the NCP in 2015, the number of Australian students to Vietnam under the NCP has increased annually, from 160 students in 2015 to 270 in 2016 and 340 in 2017. In 2020, 677 Australian students from 22 Australian universities visited Vietnam to undertake study and work-based experiences through 47 different projects.

The third outstanding front in Australia-Vietnam cooperation is the political, defense and security field. Since 1990, annual high-level visit exchanges have brought about a high level of political trust between the two countries. Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, high-level contacts were mostly maintained. In 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid an official visit to Vietnam, 25 years after Prime Minister Paul Keating’s visit in 1994. Morrison described the bilateral relationship as having “gone from friends to mates,” and twice suggested to Vietnamese counterparts that the Vietnam-Australia strategic partnership should be upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Things have moved quickly on the defense front since the two countries first held a bilateral Dialogue on Regional Security issues in April 1998. Australia and Vietnam appointed defense attachés to their capitals in 1999 and 2000, respectively, formally establishing defense ties. In April 2001, the first dialogue on defense cooperation was conducted, setting the tone for annual meetings since then. In October 2010, defense ministers from the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation, crafting a framework for the enhancement of cooperation in myriad areas, including a strategic dialogue on defense policy, military exercises and training, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief. In 2012, the two countries elevated the Dialogue on Regional Security to the Vietnam-Australia Strategic Diplomatic-Defense Dialogue at the vice-ministerial level (known as the 2+2 Dialogue). In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the diplomatic ties, the two countries held a Dialogue of Defense Ministers, which has since then taken place annually. In November 2018, defense ministers of the two countries met in Sydney and signed the Joint Vision Statement on Further Defense Cooperation, which emphasizes among other things the expansion of maritime cooperation and peacekeeping activities.

In addition, Australia has helped Vietnam deploy its peacekeeping forces to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, and Australian Royal naval ships have annually paid port visits to Vietnam since 1999. Two Australian warships visited Cam Ranh naval port for the first time in May 2019.

Intelligence information sharing and security cooperation have also been boosted. In November 2018, the two countries held the first annual vice-ministerial Dialogue on Security. The third Dialogue was conducted on February 22 of this year in Canberra, after a three-year interruption due to COVID-19.

Six factors underpin the progress “from friends to mates” over the past 50 years. The most important factor is the strategic vision as well as the political determination of the leaders of the two countries, without which the past tragic history between the two nations would not have been overcome. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs back then had a critical role in promoting bilateral relations as it had already realized the strategic position and role of Vietnam in the region. At the other end, Vietnamese diplomats and foreign policymakers also had the same vision of the importance of Australia to Vietnam and the region.

The second driver is the strategic importance of each country to the other’s economic development and security. This was particularly significant for Vietnam before and in the early days of the Doi Moi program. Australian diplomats also soon realized Vietnam’s potential to become an economic and political power in the regions where Australia has a long-term interest.

The third factor is the two nations’ congruence of strategic and core interests, and shared views on the need to comply with international rules for peace and security in the region and the world.

Opportunism and complementarity are the fourth factor that has contributed to the deepening of bilateral relations. Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing markets in Asia, with nearly 100 million consumers, while Australia needs to diversify its export markets. Australian wine, beef, supplementary food, and other agricultural and manufacturing products have long been well-known and preferred among Vietnamese consumers.

The fifth factor is the linkage and intimate attachment of the 300,000-strong Vietnamese-Australian community to both nations. This community not only acts as a bridge between the two nations, but has also acted as a driving force in promoting bilateral relations.

The last but not the least important factor lies in the trends and developments in international relations in the region and the world. It goes without saying that the rising competition between major powers in the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s coercive politics, bullying, and violations of international law in the South China Sea over the past two decades, are among the forces drawing Vietnam and Australia closer together.

Standing on the ground built over the past 50 years and aiming for the next horizon, the two strategic partners are expected to elevate the strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership this year. If and when this happens, the strategic focus should be placed on the following three areas. The first is cooperation in innovation and development, as associated with digital technology. Vietnam cannot become a middle-power without having a developed digital technology-based economy. Australia is a strong and strategic partner that can assist Vietnam in this process.

The second focus is cooperation in the defense and security sector, especially maritime security cooperation. As maritime nations, both Vietnam and Australia have recognized the importance of the ocean and the freedom of navigation in the surrounding waters to their economies and national security. There is no way for the two nations to enjoy such freedom without becoming maritime powers themselves. A deepened maritime cooperation based on political trust would clearly benefit the two nations in this space.

Finally, enhanced cooperation in the field of people-to-people and culture-to-culture exchange will contribute to deepening and tightening the ties between the Australian and Vietnamese peoples, as well as sustaining strategic cooperation between the two countries as a whole.

It would be risky to forecast the future of bilateral ties over the course of the next 50 years, but the scope of cooperation between Australia, a well-established middle-power, and Vietnam, an emerging middle power, could potentially be unlimited. Much depends on how the current and future generations of leaders of the two countries build political trust and align their strategic visions for the future.

By Hai Hong Nguyen – The Diplomat – March 7, 2023

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