Historically, Vietnam’s relationship with China has been complex. Stretching from 111 BC and early Chinese cultural domination of Vietnam, to the 1979 border conflict and more recent disputes over competing claims in the South China Sea, the relationship’s had its challenges.
Earlier this year hostility flared when the Chinese government deployed an oil rig within Vietnam’s Economic Exclusion Zone. That led to public protests and targeted violence towards Chinese nationals in 22 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces.
Tip-toeing around the edges of that tension are several countries—including the U.S., Japan, Russia and India—seeking to step up their engagement with Hanoi. All seek a stronger relationship with a partner in a geographically important location and a warmer friendship with ASEAN’s main players—and some probably hope to counter China’s expanding sphere of influence.
Tangible engagement has, for the most part, centred on arms and natural-resource sales. Vietnam took delivery of the second of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia in March. And India’s said to be close to concluding a deal to sell BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to the Vietnamese, further boosting their defense capabilities. Earlier this month, the U.S. also partially lifted its 30-year-old embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam, which will facilitate the sale of weapons for maritime purposes for the first time.
Australia should also seek to expand its engagement with Vietnam: it’s too politically and geographically important to ignore. But we need to be careful not to ruffle Beijing’s feathers while doing so. So we must be subtle in our cooperation with Hanoi, proceeding with a softly-softly approach.
Non-traditional security issues such as cybersecurity provide an opportunity to take our existing engagement, which primarily revolves around transnational crime, to the next level.
That’s by no means an easy task. Vietnam, like many other countries in the region, has dabbled with internet censorship, blocking access to certain platforms and arresting a handful of online activists.
But instead of throwing our hands up and deciding it’s all too difficult, Australian government departments and agencies should develop strategies and policies on what information, skills and knowledge can be safely shared amongst countries with an imperfect record of online practices.
Vietnam is by no means as restrictive as other countries in the region when it comes to freedom of expression online and has shown positive signs of reform, albeit not yet in legislative form. Earlier this year the government yielded to international pressure and released several high-profile dissidents including blogger Nguyen Tien Trung.
Beyond the wider strategic and political benefits, increasing cyber engagement in the region is a critical goal in its own right. By engaging with countries in the region who are “fence sitters” on issues such as freedom of speech and internet governance we can help push the barrow for an open Internet underwritten by “multistakeholderism.” That’s particularly crucial at a time when those on the other side of the debate are stepping up their public (and not so public) activism in the region.
The United States has caught on to this strategy and has already begun a dialogue on future cyber collaboration with Vietnam. India has gone a step further, naming cyber security as one of five major areas for cooperation in its strategic partnership with Hanoi.
From an Australian point of view, a logical first step would be to draw on lessons learned from our engagement with other Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has helped to successfully establish a Cyber Crime Investigation Center and several associated cyber units. Earlier this year, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade organized an ASEAN Regional Forum (AFR) Workshop on Cyber Confidence Building co-chaired with Malaysia, and CERT Australia used the same forum in 2009 to co-chair a Cyber Incident Response Workshop with Singapore.
Vietnam is a strategically important country in our region. And whilst our diplomatic and economic sensitivities might make it difficult for us to engage in a manner similar to other countries, non-traditional security issues such as cyber security present a unique opportunity. Instead of shying away from non-traditional cyber partners we should recognize, fund, and exploit the opportunities this strategic area provides.
Jessica Woodall is an analyst in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. This article first appeared on The Strategist, the blog of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).