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14 December 2022

With Thuy Do

The View from Vietnam

Australia and Vietnam have conducted a series of high-level meetings in recent months, as they try to cement a relationship that both now view as increasingly important.          

In June, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, visited Hanoi – her first trip to a South-East Asian country since taking office – and three months later Vietnam’s foreign minister, Bui Thanh Son, paid a visit to Australia. Prime ministers Pham Minh Chinh and Anthony Albanese spoke by phone in October, followed by a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 12 November. President Nguyen Xuan Phuc also met with Albanese at the APEC Summit in Thailand on 17 November. Most recently, Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, visited Vietnam on 24 and 25 November, and the chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly, Vuong Dinh Hue, was in Australia last week.

In the shadow of the US–China geopolitical rivalry and rising tensions in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s resolve to defend its sovereignty and Australia’s strong commitment to ensuring maritime freedom of navigation have brought the two nations closer together.

Canberra has proposed that in 2023 – on the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations – the two countries upgrade their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Vietnam’s highest level of bilateral relationship, which it currently has with China, Russia, India and most recently South Korea. During Chairman Hue’s visit last week, the two countries agreed to consider elevating the relationship to such a level. If that happens – and it may depend on Hanoi’s assessment of Beijing’s potential reaction – it would mark the first time that Vietnam gives top ranking to a Western country.

Despite being courted by US-led security arrangements such as the Quad and AUKUS, including proposals to include Vietnam in the Quad Plus initiative, Hanoi has maintained a prudent approach. It has not publicly supported these blocs and has preserved its “Four Nos” non-alignment policy, reflecting Hanoi’s concerns about Beijing’s reaction and the prospect of eroding ASEAN centrality in regional architecture. Hanoi harbours scepticism about China’s strategic ambitions for historic reasons but shares ideology, culture and concerns about regime security with Beijing, and its ties with the West – including the United States and Australia – are sometimes affected by differences over political systems and values. Hanoi has therefore tried to walk a tight line between China and the US.

Hanoi and Canberra share concerns about China’s rise and its growing assertiveness, but both need to take into consideration that China remains their largest trading partner. In October, Vietnam’s Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, was the first foreign leader to visit China after the conclusion of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, showing that Hanoi’s top foreign policy priority is maintaining strong ties with Beijing. Therefore, Hanoi may welcome signs of rapprochement between Australia and China following the recent meeting between Albanese and China’s president, Xi Jinping, at the G-20 summit in Bali.

From a Vietnamese perspective, Australia is an important economic partner and a growing political and security player in the Indo-Pacific. During the recent meeting with Marles, Prime Minister Chinh said that Vietnam “highly appreciates Australia’s potential and position in the international arena”. As an established, wealthy and influential middle power, Australia offers valuable examples for an emerging middle power like Vietnam to follow.

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, trade between Australia and Vietnam reached over $A18 billion in 2021 and $A19.7 billion in the first ten months of 2022, making Australia the seventh-largest trading partner of Vietnam, and Vietnam the tenth-largest trading partner of Australia. Hanoi greatly appreciated Australia providing 26.4 million doses of vaccine, medical equipment and supplies during the pandemic as well as Canberra’s decision to increase aid to Vietnam by 18 per cent – to $A93 million – in 2022–23.

As middle powers, Hanoi and Canberra share interests in a rules-based trading system and have actively pushed for the conclusion and implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as well as supporting agricultural negotiations at the World Trade Organization through the Cairns Group.

Australia and Vietnam have closely coordinated action on issues such as climate change, preventing natural disasters, ensuring stable supply chains and contributing to peacekeeping operations. Vietnamese leaders have publicly called for Australia’s support in areas such as developing renewable energy and green transition to help Vietnam fulfill its commitment to achieve net-zero emission by 2050. Australia has also been helpful in training Vietnamese forces for UN peacekeeping missions in Africa and assisting the transport of Vietnam’s Level 2 field hospitals to and from South Sudan.

Vietnam’s current foreign policy is characterised by what I call “clumping bamboo diplomacy”, meaning it’s independent and self-reliant but not solitary in coping with strategic uncertainties, thanks to a network of reliable partners that it has developed over time. Forging ties with regional middle powers such as Australia is indispensable to Vietnam’s endeavor to support a rules-based order in Asia.


Thuy Do is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. She obtained a doctoral degree in International Relations from the Australian National University in 2016.



A free extract from “Penny Wong” by Geraldine Doogue

In many eyes, she is the ultimate proof Australia has “arrived” as a country moving fast beyond its Anglo-Saxon-Celt roots. If only Lee Kuan Yew were alive to see it. Even he might have suspended his usual scepticism about Australia’s commitment to belonging in its neighbourhood.

Yes, the sight of an Australian foreign minister, of mixed heritage, confidently messaging in Bahasa Indonesian and Malay during her first official South-East Asian visit in June was stunning – prompting delight within Australia and bemused astonishment in the Asian region. How much the imagery influences genuine Asian rethinking of our attitudes is still to be settled. But the “optics” were a circuit-breaker from the past. Even among the usual critics, images like these prompted exuberant pride in the nation’s multicultural achievements. But it also brought big expectations that Wong herself may not exactly welcome.CONTINUE READING


Monthly round-up

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A role for ASEAN in stabilising Australia–China relations

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Negotiating the nuclear minefield at AUSMIN

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Malaysia’s new PM – the need to get it right for the country

“While the public can forgive Anwar’s working with UMNO now for the sake of national unity, his garnering of a two-thirds majority must not be celebrated as a true achievement but as a means to a larger end – acquiring sufficient power to amend the Constitution, to clean up the state apparatus and set the tone to clean up the country’s political culture.” Norshahril Saat,Fulcrum (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)




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