[East Asia Forum] The first Australia–Vietnam Joint Foreign Affairs Defence Strategic Dialogue was held in Canberra on 21 February 2012.
While this is evidence of the increasing importance the two countries accord each other as regional partners, the dialogue is also a useful mechanism for Australia and Vietnam to boost mutual understanding and trust, and to deepen cooperation for common strategic interests, regional peace and stability.
The dialogue is a strategically meaningful move for Vietnam against the backdrop of increasing tensions in the South China Sea, where China has recently become more assertive regarding disputed territorial claims. Facing a much more powerful neighbour, Vietnam is reaching out to foreign powers in an attempt to at least deter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, if not balance against its broader regional dominance.
The US is undoubtedly one of Vietnam’s preferred foreign partners, and despite past hostilities, Vietnam is keen to foster stronger ties in all fields. But with the US pivot toward the Asia Pacific already raising eyebrows, a stronger US–Vietnam relationship would most likely put unwanted strain on Vietnam’s already tense relations with China.
So Vietnam’s strategic decision to promote stronger ties with middle powers like Australia is entirely understandable. And while Beijing tends to be less sensitive to changes in these relationships, they can still bring Vietnam significant benefits. For example, Australia has voiced its support for the freedom of navigation and peaceful dispute resolution in the South China Sea, thereby indirectly repudiating China’s excessive claims. And the Australian government’s recent agreement to rotate US troops through Darwin indicates that Australia could play a significant role in constraining China’s ambitions in the region, including its assertions in the South China Sea.
Stronger ties with Australia bring Vietnam more than just strategic benefits. Bilateral trade reached US$4.1 billion in 2010, and Australia is now Vietnam’s fifth-largest export market. Australia is also a major aid donor to Vietnam, providing the country with AU$137.9 million (US$145.9 million) in official development assistance during the 2011/12 financial year.
The benefits also go both ways. As a middle power seeking to enhance its role in the Asia Pacific, Australia finds in Vietnam a valuable partner with which to work in promoting its interests. Vietnam wants to see Australia play a greater role in the region and considers Australia’s participation in regional institutions to be beneficial for regional peace and stability. For example, Vietnam’s support contributed significantly toAustralia’s successful bid for membership in the East Asia Summit. Vietnam can also provide Australia with a useful source of support and a channel for information and policy coordination within ASEAN-led arrangements. And given China’s rise and Vietnam’s strategic location, Australia should take Vietnam into consideration for future regional security configurations.
Still, there are still many things Vietnam and Australia can do to further strengthen their partnership. In the political field, the two countries should continue to hold close policy consultations and provide support for each other’s efforts in international institutions, including bids for membership in UN bodies. In the security field, they should deepen their defence and security cooperation by intensifying strategic study and intelligence exchange, promoting humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and exchanging experience in peacekeeping and maritime security. On the economic front, there is still enormous room for the two countries to increase their bilateral trade. The likely conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations this year may provide a lever for Vietnam and Australia to step up their economic ties and consolidate the economic foundation of their relationship.
There are also certain challenges the bilateral relationship faces. First, there is pressure from China, an important country with which both Australia and Vietnam want to maintain a good relationship. The two countries may have to work hard to show that a stronger Australia–Vietnam relationship contributes to regional peace and security, and should not worry third parties. Second, there are still differences between the two countries regarding issues such as human rights. While bilateral human rights dialogues should serve as an essential tool for promoting mutual understanding and trust, Australia should not let the issue cast a shadow over the long-term prospect of bilateral strategic relations. After all, Australia’s engagement and cooperation with Vietnam will likely encourage the latter to gradually adopt international norms and values.
The systemic roles of middle powers are usually at their greatest when relations between great powers are ambiguous — when they are neither too hostile nor too cooperative. Given the current condition of Sino–US relations, this is the right time for middle powers like Australia to enhance their international role. Vietnam should also take the opportunity to further strengthen its relations with Australia. The first Australia–Vietnam Joint Foreign Affairs Defence Strategic Dialogue is a small step in the right direction, contributing to a stronger bilateral relationship that serves both countries’ long-term mutual interests.
Le Hong Hiep is Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations,Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
A version of this article was first published here by The Diplomat.