Great Expectations as Australia and Vietnam Ponder ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’

21 Dec 2022

This article was originally published in the The Diplomat and has been republished with full permission from the author. To view the original article please click here.

Last week, Vietnamese National Assembly Chairperson Vuong Dinh Hue visited Canberra and held talks with several high-ranking Australian officials including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Hue, a member of the Politburo and the fourth among the most powerful “four pillars” in the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), was the first top Vietnamese leader to visit Australia in the last four years. Hue’s visit would also have laid the next stepping stone toward the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership when the two nations mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties next year.

The “comprehensive strategic partnership” is the level above the “strategic partnership” that Australia established with Vietnam in 2018, on the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The idea of upgrading the strategic partnership was first suggested by former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in January 2021, during a telephone conversation with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is now the state president. Four months later, Morrison repeated the suggestion in his first phone call with newly-elected Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. When Morrison met Chinh in person, on the sidelines of the COP26 in Glasgow in November of that year, he referred to the strategic partnership between the two countries as “dynamic.”

Vietnamese diplomats see a comprehensive strategic partnership as reflecting a level of political and strategic trust, and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said recently that the Vietnam-Australia partnership is “grounded in trust” and that “the ties between Australia and Vietnam run deep.” Indeed, Vietnam-Australia ties are increasingly characterized by a convergence of strategic and core interests.

This is underpinned by the many ways in which Australia stands out as “the first” and “the only” on matters relating to Vietnam. It was among the first Western nations to establish diplomatic ties with Vietnam (1973) before the Vietnam War ended. Australia is among the only Western countries that supported Vietnam to become a member of the United Nations (1977). After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Australian diplomatic mission in Hanoi became the only bridge of communication between Vietnam and other Western nations that did not have their diplomatic representatives in the communist state’s capital.

In 1994, Paul Keating became the first Australian prime minister and the second head of a Western government to visit reunited Vietnam after the war (1994). Australia provided aid to Vietnam to build the first bridge over the Mekong River in the south of Vietnam. When Vietnam started its Doi Moi program of economic reforms, Australia was one of only five countries that made the most investments in Vietnam. ANZ was the first bank from an English-speaking country to open a branch and provided the first ATM services in Vietnam. Australia’s Phillips Fox was the first foreign law firm awarded a license to operate in Hanoi and pioneered in publishing the Vietnamese law on foreign investment in English. RMIT was awarded a license to become the first foreign university to establish itself in Vietnam, and Swinburne University was among the first foreign universities that were allowed to run training programs in Vietnam in the 1990s. Australia was the first Western nation to host a visit by the Vietnamese National Assembly chairperson in 1990, as well as a visit by the VCP secretary-general in 1995.

The discussions about upgrading the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership have seemingly slowed down in recent months, given the two nations’ struggles with COVID-19 and Australia’s federal election in May.

The election brought the Australian Labor Party to power. Unlike the Morrison government, the Anthony Albanese government seems to have taken a softer, quieter, and somehow more cautious approach to diplomacy. During its first months in office, the phrase “comprehensive strategic partnership” had not been spoken in public to describe the future of the Australia-Vietnam partnership before Hue’s visit. However, things became clearer during last week’s visit.

The goal of establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership was echoed in meetings between Hue and other Australian officials, including Albanese, Wong, General-Governor David Hurley, Minister of Defense Richard Marles, and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. The Vietnamese Ambassador to Australia, Nguyen Tat Thanh, commented that the Vietnam-Australia relationship has reached a point of maturity that was set to enter a new phase of trust, implying the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Wong was more specific, saying as quoted in the Vietnamese media that “the discussion about the possible elevation of the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership on the occasion of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between the two countries would be an advancement, an important achievement.”

The question now is what would be covered by a comprehensive strategic partnership between Australia and Vietnam?

In September, the Vietnamese Ambassador Thanh summarized current bilateral cooperation as including three pillars and eight priority issues. The three pillars are economic cooperation, defense and security cooperation, and innovation. The eight priority issues are education and training, energy and natural resources, agriculture-forestry-marine products, manufacturing, tourism, science-technology, the digital economy, and services.

In the meantime, Chairman Hue, in a speech to the Australia-Vietnam Policy Institute last week, emphasized the following three key priorities: (i) enhancing trade-economic cooperation; (ii) deepening further strategic, security, and defense cooperation; and (iii) building strategic cooperation pillars in knowledge sharing, education, training, and innovation, with a special focus on cooperation in the areas of green energy and technology. Hue also underlined the importance of local cooperation and people-to-people links, considering them as the important pillars of Vietnam-Australia relations.

Obviously, a comprehensive strategic partnership would cover all of the above-mentioned areas, and lead to both their reinforcement and expansion. Overall, the comprehensive strategic partnership can be expected to build on the following five pillars: (i) political trust and cooperation; (ii) economic, trade, investment, and agriculture enhancement; (iii) defense, intelligence, and security cooperation; (iv) education, science and technology, and innovation; (v) people-to-people links.

The progress on each of the five above-suggested pillars is so far impressive, but there are still missing pieces in each of these areas, falling short of the strategic nature of the partnership. Let’s take the economic and defense cooperation, two of the most important strategic cooperation areas, as examples.

In economics and trade, Vietnam and Australia signed the Australia-Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy in 2021, which has boosted two-way trade volume to nearly $14 billion in the first 10 months of 2022, an increase of 33 percent against the same period in 2021, making Australia and Vietnam each other’s seventh and the tenth largest trading partners, respectively. Nevertheless, there is currently no mechanism that brings together high-ranking officials from both sides to discuss and find ways to address the bottlenecks and challenges in the bureaucracy and business culture that hinder further cooperation. It is expected that a trade minister dialogue will be held next year. This dialogue should be established regularly.