The Australia-Vietnam relations are currently enjoying a good run and are bound to continue a positive trajectory. The two countries are increasingly aligned in their strategic outlook and both find each other supportive and, frankly, useful, for their own strategic goals. But this new-found closeness still needs depth and more attention, particularly from the Australian side.
Since the return of the US-China great power competition, Australia also has realised the need to pay more attention to regional partners, and among them, one of the more active powers in the region – Vietnam.
The two countries signed a strategic partnership in 2018 and Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid a visit to Vietnam in 2019 - the first prime ministerial bilateral visit to the country in decades.
Despite differences in political systems and certain values, Canberra and Hanoi are increasingly more aligned in strategic priorities and like-minded in many ways. Both are on the same page in regards to the strategic challenges posed by China. Both recognise that the South China Seas and the Mekong are key strategic theatres. Both trust Japan and want to build up more defence and security cooperation.
There are some key differences in position. Views on the US differs, but by and large, both Australia and Vietnam are hopeful about the Biden administration and are keen to encourage the US to be more present in the region. But individually, relations with the major powers, China and the US, differs – due to differences in geography, historical experiences and fundamental beliefs.
Comparatively, however, Hanoi’s world view is more compatible with Canberra’s than many other Southeast Asian partners. For example, on the constructive role that the US can play in the region. Vietnam has time and again proven to be most enthusiastic about the US, even under Trump, and more suspicious about China than most of their Southeast Asian neighbours.
As the now annual survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute over the past three years showed, Vietnam stands out on how leniently they saw Trump’s America, compared with other Southeast Asian neighbours, while they continuously display a higher level of distrust towards China than the region’s average.
In my own study on the regional perceptions of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), one of the key findings was that Vietnam stood out among others in its supportive attitude towards this set of minilateral arrangements. Australia is invested in the Quad, having recently participated in a leaders Quad meeting and committing more resources and diplomatic energy towards its future. This presents another avenue for further Quad Plus dialogues which is likely to continue.
Both Vietnam and Australia have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well, giving the countries sufficient bandwidth to think strategically. An indication of that was Australia’s release of Defence Strategic Update 2020 where it espoused a view on the rapidly changing global order and expressed the activeness it needed to shoulder in order to protect sustaining the rules-based order.
Vietnam, as the Chair of ASEAN in the pandemic year, and the UN Security Council’s non-permanent member, played an active role in the international affairs beyond the focus on domestic politics and containment of the outbreak at home.
Within the UN system, both countries have contributed adequately in the recent years to their capacity and experience, but they have also supported each other. For example, Australia has supported Vietnam’s contribution to the UN Peacekeeping missions in South Sudan. In a more regional context, Vietnam has also shown support for Australia’s efforts making its bi-annual dialogue with ASEAN an annual event in 2020.
Despite the complementarity of the two economies, the two-way trade is rather lagging behind its potential. Vietnam is not in the top ten trading partners of Australia, figuring only at 14th place in 2019. Australian businesses are “discovering” Vietnam as a good alternative market for partial diversification, now that China’s market is problematic. But compared to other regional actors such as Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, Australia is relatively late to the party. Both countries are parties to the regional multilateral trade pacts, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), so once they are ratified, that may change.
Finally, Australia’s realisation of Vietnam’s importance needs to be translated to its general commitment of understanding Asia. Currently among Australian universities there’s a glaring lack of Vietnam expertise, and language teaching became a victim of the larger trend of de-funding Asian language programs. Only deeper mutual understanding and genuine interests can ensure lasting alignment.
Huong Le Thu is a Senior Analyst at The Australian Strategic Policy Institute. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.