A high-ranking delegation of the Vietnamese National Assembly, led by its Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue, is on an official visit to Australia from November 30 to December 3 at the invitations of Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives Milton Dick and President of the Australian Senate Sue Lines. This is the first visit of a Vietnamese senior leader to Australia in the past five years and the fifth visit of the President of the National Assembly of Vietnam to Australia since the end of the war. Prior to the visit, Vietnam’s ambassador to Australia Nguyen Tat Thanh underlined that bilateral ties between the two countries have gained teeth during the past 50 years, in particular after the ties were upgraded to a Strategic Partnership in March 2018. Cooperation and consultation between the National Assembly of Vietnam and the Australian Parliament have helped to lay out institutional framework which has contributed to the strengthening and deepening bilateral ties.
In recent years developments in the Indo-Pacific region have taken place with breath-taking rapidity. The Covid-19 further disrupted the lives and policies of almost all countries. While some countries calibrated their foreign policy priorities and came closer to deal with common challenges, some others had to reorient their bilateral ties because of policy differences. In this matrix, one aspect emerges strikingly clear. Bilateral ties between Australia and China were strained because of trade issues. Australia’s demand for an inquiry to the origin of the pandemic in a Chinese city irked the Chinese, leading bilateral ties further to nosedive. Because of this Australia’s foreign policy focus took a dramatic turn around as it started redefining its ties with other Asian countries such as Japan, India, South Korea and the ASEAN. Within the ASEAN grouping, Vietnam emerges as a frontrunner in the Australian calculus. Hue’s visit gains significance against this background.
This is not to say that Australia-Vietnam relations were less cordial. The truism is that opposite is the case. Both are strategic partners in the South Pacific. Exchange of delegations and high-level meetings on a frequent basis have kept bilateral ties at a high trajectory. During the Covid-19 pandemic, such talks were held virtually as was the case of most countries conducting their foreign policies. Recently in September 2022, both Vietnam and Australia conducted their fourth foreign ministerial-level meeting and are now planning for the third meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries. The bilateral Plan of Action for the 2020-2023 period has reaped concrete results.
The complementarities between the two economies can be measured from the fact that despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, two-way trade grew nearly 50% to $12.4 billion. This figure has soared by 31.5% annually in the first nine months of the current year 2022 to $12 billion. Vietnam’s ODA money to Australia also increased to A$92.8 million compared to A$78.9 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic also called for active vaccine diplomacy. During this critical time, Australia was gracious enough to provide over 26.4 million vaccine doses for Vietnam, including 12 million doses for adults and over 14.4 million for children, becoming the second biggest vaccine provider for Vietnam, behind the US, for Covid-19 prevention and control.
Bilateral ties in other areas have also looked promising. Collaboration in national defence, security, education-training, labour, and agriculture are developing fruitfully. Both have paid attention to advance cooperation in fields such as climate change response, digital transformation and energy transition. Australia has evinced interest to upgrade the bilateral relations as the two sides prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties in 2023. The establishment of the Vietnam-Australia Friendship Parliamentarians’ Group in October is noteworthy. The Covid-19 pandemic during the past two years did not prevent leaders to remain engaged virtually, or over phone calls with a view to deepen their strategic partnership. At regional and global inter-parliamentary forums, the lawmakers of both the countries also offer mutual support on regional and global issues of shared concern.
Strengthening defence cooperation between the two countries is another focus area. Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh spoke on 25 November 2022 the relevance of strengthening cooperation in the field of defence, which he saw as a “bright spot” in bilateral relations. At a reception for visiting Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Donald Marles in Hanoi, the PM highlighted cooperation outcomes in UN peacekeeping operations, military medicine, sharing of information and experience and the settlement of war consequences, as well as the two countries’ cooperation at multilateral mechanisms, particularly the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM). It was during this meeting, Hue’s visit to Australia was discussed and soon finalised.
Besides bilateral issues, both the countries also are cooperating at regional and global level. The decision to transport the level-2 field hospital to South Sudan in 2023 and the subsequent years is an appreciative initiative, showing each side’s responsibility for common international issues. It thus transpired that the ambit of having strategic partnership is just not limited to bilateral defence and security issues but beyond this for the peace, prosperity and development of the region and the world. Marles appreciated Vietnam’s foreign policy that puts primacy on independence, self-reliance, diversification and multilateralism of relations and such traits match well with that of Australia.
The two sides have agreed to work harder to accelerate the implementation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other cooperation mechanisms to elevate their cooperation to a new height, especially in trade, investment, climate change response, education-training, and national defence and security.
Besides the talks with Prime Minister Chinh, Vietnam’s Minister of National Defence Gen. Phan Van Giang also hosted an official welcome ceremony for Richard Donald Marles on 25 November 2022. It soon transpired that the talks reaffirmed the urgency of deepening the strategic partnership across all spectrum, including defence cooperation and effectively implementing the MoU on defence cooperation signed 12 years ago, and the Declaration on Joint Visions for Enhancing Defence Cooperation inked in 2018.
Both sides also have common viewpoints on many regional and international issues of common concern, including safety and freedom of navigation and aviation in the East Sea (South China Sea). Maintaining mutual trust is crucial in furthering mutual development.
It may be recalled that Australia was one of the first Western countries in the world to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam on 26 February 1973, soon after the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was signed. Soon after this, 39 parliamentarians established a Parliamentary Committee to push for Australia to recognise the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam.
Australia was also the first Western country to receive an official visit from a Senior Vietnamese Leader, which is National Assembly Chairman Le Quang Dao (May 1990). This historic visit ushered in important visits by Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet (May 1993) and especially General Secretary Do Muoi (July 1995). Over the past 30 years, many Presidents and Vice Presidents of the National Assembly of Vietnam and the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Australia have regularly visited each other, opening new frameworks for cooperation between the two countries. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Dinh Hue had a virtual conference with Australian House of Representatives Speaker Tony Smith in June 2021, when both the leaders spoke about practical cooperation in many fields, especially health and vaccine support.
Overall if one sees objectively, Dinh Hue’s visit shall open new doors where both the countries shall have opportunities to work together for both mutual benefits as well as for the region and the world. Areas for cooperation where both sides can contribute are limitless. Climate change, terrorism, supply chain resilience, people-to-people exchanges and many more are potential areas for both sides to work further for common goal to contribute to the society at large. It is to be hoped that Dinh Hue’s visit shall open up new vista for the bilateral ties to scale new heights. The changing regional security environment shall provide an additional heft to this evolving relationship.