|Hai Hong Nguyen
Centre for Policy Futures, the University of Queensland
However, no one would think that both the Australian Governor-General and the Prime Minister could visit Vietnam in the same year. But a special relationship between Vietnam and Australia makes all things possible. In April, Governor-General David Hurley paid an official visit to Vietnam at the invitation of his counterpart Vo Van Thuong. Soon Hanoi will again lay red carpet to welcome Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for a two-day official visit which will begin on June 3. Why is Vietnam-Australia relationship special?
Vietnam and Australia established their diplomatic ties on February 26, 1973, when the Vietnam war had not yet ended. Five months later, Bruce Woodberry arrived in Hanoi in his role as Australia’s Chargé d'Affaires. Bilateral relations have recorded impressive achievements, going from a regular friendship to a comprehensive and now a strategic partnership. However, what has made the Vietnam-Australia relationship special is illustrated by what Australia stands out as “the first” and “the only” in some respects with Vietnam. Australia was among the first Western nations to establish diplomatic ties (1973) with Vietnam before the Vietnam War ended and was among the only few Western countries that supported Vietnam to become a member of the UN (1977). The Australian diplomatic mission in Hanoi after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 became the only bridge of communication between Vietnam and some Western nations that had not had diplomatic representatives in the Southeast Asian country. 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. Australia was one of the only five countries that made the most investment in Vietnam when the later started its Doi Moi program in 1986. 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 that was awarded a license to operate in Hanoi and pioneered in publishing the Vietnamese law on foreign investment in English. RMIT was licensed to become the first foreign university in Vietnam, and Swinburne University was among the first foreign universities allowed to run training programs in Vietnam in the 1990s. And Australia was the first Western nation that hosted a visit by the Vietnamese National Assembly Chairperson in 1990, as well as a visit by the Communist Party of Vietnam's General Secretary in 1995.
In September 2009, Vietnam and Australia advanced from a regular partnership to a Comprehensive Partnership. In March 2018, in marking the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties, the two countries upgraded their comprehensive partnership to a Strategic Partnership, which is expected to be elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership this year.
Looking at the figures, it is likely that one could have never thought that impressive progress has been made in bilateral relations since Paul Keating's visit in 1994.
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 March 2023, this figure has increased to nearly $2 billion, distributed among 593 active projects. At the other end, Vietnam has had fifty-three direct investment projects worth approximately $600 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. Direct flights between the two countries and the strategic partnership further boosted bilateral trade. In 2022, total two-way trade value stood to close to $16 billion, lifting Australia to be Vietnam's 7th largest trading partner, while Vietnam was Australia's 10th largest trading partner. The first quarter of this year saw bilateral trade registered at $3.4 billion.
The education and training cooperation pillar has also been a high note in these bilateral relations. Australia has emerged as one of the top foreign education markets which attract the largest number of Vietnamese students. As of December 2022, more than 22,000 Vietnamese students were studying at different education institutions across Australia, accounting for 4 percent of international students and making Vietnam one of the top five countries with the most international student visa holders in Australia. Thus far, there are an estimated 80,000 Vietnamese alumni of Australian institutions in Vietnam and approximately 15,000 Australian students who went to Vietnam under different schemes including the New Colombo Plan.
Cooperation in the field of defence and security has moved quickly. Since the first bilateral Dialogue on Regional Security issues in April 1998 and following the appointment of defence attachés to their respective capitals in 1999 and 2000, Vietnam and Australia have signed agreements, established mechanisms, and conducted meetings at diverse levels to advance and deepen cooperation in the field. They include the annual dialogue on defence cooperation since 2001, a Memorandum of Understanding on defence Cooperation in 2010 which lays a framework for a strategic dialogue on defence 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-Defence Dialogue at the vice-ministerial level (known as the 2+2 Dialogue). Defence ministers of the two countries have held an annual dialogue since 2013 and signed the Joint Vision Statement on Further Defence Cooperation in 2018, which emphasizes among other things the expansion of maritime cooperation and peacekeeping activities. The two countries held the first annual vice-ministerial Dialogue on Security in 2018 and the Third Dialogues was conducted on February 22 of this year after a three-year interruption due to COVID-19. Australia has also 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.
In his first official visit to Vietnam, and the second to Southeast Asia since becoming Australia’s prime minister last May, what activities should be suggested on the agenda for Mr Albanese in Hanoi? Surely, he will hold talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and be meeting with top leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam including General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, State President Vo Van Thuong, and Chairman of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue with whom Mr Albanese met in Canberra last year during Hue's official visit to Australia. However, there should be some symbolic but significant functions and activities that cement Australia's commitment and contributions to Vietnam's development and prosperity, as well as amplify the two countries' strategic partnership.
Since Vietnam and Australia adopted the Australia-Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy in 2021, and have convened three ministerial economic partnership meeting, the prime ministers of the two countries have never jointly had a dialogue with the business communities from both sides. Prime Minister Albanese should take this chance with his Vietnamese counterpart to speak and have a candid dialogue at a business forum in Hanoi. It will demonstrate a high-level support and boost for bilateral trade and investment given that the two countries finding ways to speed up post-COVID-19 economic recovery and minimise the headwinds due to the global crisis and impacts of the conflict in Ukraine. It is also a chance for the two countries to set a new milestone, becoming the top five trading partners with total two-way trade value increasing to $20 billion or higher on the existing ground of approximately $16 billion. With the intended expansion of strategic cooperation to new areas such as digital transformation, green economy, green energy and agriculture, nothing is impossible for Australia to become Vietnam's 5th largest trading partner and Vietnam be Australia's 7th largest trading partner by 2030.
There are an estimated 80,000 Australian alumni in Vietnam, many of whom are holding key positions in the government and successful in business. A meeting with the alumni or a visit to a business run by an Australia alumnus that is making contributions to Vietnamese society is a symbolic activity, but it represents a recognition and a testimonial of how Australia's commitment could and continue to contribute to Vietnam's development and prosperity.
The third suggestion for the prime minister is a meeting at the headquarters of the Vietnam Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPO). In recent years, in tandem with increased bilateral cooperation in defence and security, Australia has supported Vietnam’s peacekeeping mission to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan through specialist peacekeeping training, equipment, and strategic airlift support. Mr Albanese's meeting with DPO staff on this occasion reaffirms Australia's commitment in supporting Vietnam to fulfil its responsibilities to the international community, as well as shows the mateship between the two countries in standing shoulder-to-shoulder for peace and prosperity of the people in the region and around the world.
The prime minister should consider a visit to the Vietnam-Australia Centre (VAC) based at the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy. VAC is a platform where Australian expertise is leveraged to support and strengthen Vietnam's future leadership and policy development. Mr Albanese's visit to VAC will reiterate the commitment and buttress the significance of the Australian government's support to Vietnam in building the capacity of its future leadership in response to the new challenges when Vietnam is entering the new development era.
Vietnam and ASEAN are important and strategic partners and neighbours of Australia. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries, there is no better place than the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam where Prime Minister Albanese speaks on the past fifty years and draws out the horizon from now to 2050 of the strategic partnership between Australia and Vietnam. He should also take this opportunity to deliver a message and reiterate Australia's foreign policy to Southeast Asia and more broadly the vision of an open and free Indo-Pacific in line with Australia's alliance with QUAD and the AUKUS deals.
Finally, culture and people-to-people links are the glue that sticks the two countries together. The Prime Minister should spend time visiting some Vietnam's iconic cultural and historic places. They possibly include the Temple of Literature (Văn miếu Quốc Tử giám), Ngoc Son Temple (Đền Ngọc Sơn), or Tran Quoc Pagoda (Chùa Trấn Quốc). He may also take a walk in the Old Quarter streets and drop in a restaurant where he can enjoy the culturally rooted cuisine of Hanoians such as crab noodle soup, grilled chopped fish, or the youth-loved egg-milked coffee. This is the opportunity for the Prime Minister to show that Australia and Vietnam are the two close neighbours sharing an open ocean and bound by the cultural links, rather than being the two distant countries locating on two geographical continents invisible to each other.