Vietnam is hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison amid escalated tensions between Hanoi and China in the South China Sea.
Morrison is the first Australian prime minister to travel to Vietnam for a bilateral visit in 25 years. This reflects the importance of Vietnam in Australia’s strategy toward the region in the way that, according to Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, “will redress a lacuna in relations between Australia and Vietnam.”
In fact, Australia has many shared interests with Vietnam, and both sides have not hesitated to praise the relationship. From Canberra, Morrison stated that “Our relationship with Vietnam has never been stronger.” That matched Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s comments last year, when he said that Vietnam-Australia relations are at “the best level ever.”
The bilateral relationship, which was raised to a strategic partnership in 2018, is even more important for Hanoi and Canberra as China looms.
The two countries have to face China’s influence in the region and they share the same challenge in terms of Chinese coercion. While Vietnam repeatedly asked China to withdraw the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 from its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, Australian leaders were accused by Beijing of a “cold war mentality” when it comes to the Pacific Island nations.
There are also early signs of a united response to the China challenge. For example, Vietnam’s leadership avoided using 5G technologies from Chinese tech giant Huawei. Australia earlier came to exactly the same conclusion — and wanted Canberra’s partners to do so as well.
Sources from Vietnam believe that the public language from Morrison’s visit will center on trade and investment cooperation and Australia’s support for Vietnam’s international role. But the real expectations are for Australian support over the South China Sea issue and the Code of Conduct negotiations as well.
Vietnamese figures, indeed, want to add the South China Sea and Vanguard Bank to the agenda at every possible international event.
In a rare move on August 21, Vietnam’s Ambassador to Australia Ngo Huong Nam gave The Australian Financial Review an exclusive interview in the light of Morrison’s visit to Hanoi. Mentioning China’s recent activities in the South China Sea, Nam emphasized: “Given the strategic importance of this body of waters to the region and beyond, preserving peace, and stability and maintaining freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea have become not only the shared interest but also a shared responsibility of all countries.”
Such comments, often considered “sensitive,” reveal Vietnam’s efforts to pressure China over Beijing’s actions. And it is a part of a larger diplomatic strategy toward the issue.
Like many other countries, including Australia, Vietnam always has to carefully balance taking a tough stance against China over national security interests and preserving the economic benefits of the relationship. In this situation, in accordance with the policy of settling disputes peacefully, diplomatic protest is the most feasible choice.
Diplomacy, meanwhile, appears to be Vietnam’s strong point in recent years. In their effort to gain international support, Vietnam’s leadership has been focusing on foreign affairs. On August 8, 2018, the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee issued Decree No.25 CT/TW to promote multilateral diplomacy, which led to prominent diplomatic victories. In February, Vietnam won the race to host the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. In June, Hanoi dotted the “i” and crossed the “t” for a non-permanent seat in United Nations Security Council. Most recently, Hanoi signed a remarkable free trade agreement with the European Union.
And Vietnam has also sought diplomatic support specifically on its maritime disputes. There are reports that Vietnam has briefed India about the escalating tension in the South China Sea — and India was just one of Hanoi’s briefed partners. It should come as no surprise if Australia is the next country that Vietnam seeks assurance from on the South China Sea.
It is understood that Vietnam and Australia will mention China and the South China Sea in their working agenda. The chosen language of any joint statement is expected to include support for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Vietnam has been keen on citing UNCLOS in their protests over China’s activities in the South China Sea. UNCLOS indicates that China has violated Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf.
Sure enough, the joint statement issued by Morrison and Phuc included a lengthy section on the South China Sea and offered strong support for UNCLOS:
The Prime Ministers expressed serious concerns about developments in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and militarization of disputed features.
They also expressed concern about disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects in the South China Sea. They emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, compliance with international law and maintaining a rules-based order. They called on all parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation. They also reaffirmed the need for states to resolve disputes peacefully, without the threat or use of force in accordance with international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Prime Ministers underscored the importance of UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanisms and called upon the parties to respect and implement the decisions rendered by these mechanisms. They reiterated the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They called for any Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China to be fully consistent with international law, in particular UNCLOS, without prejudice to the interests of third parties or the rights of states under international law, and support existing inclusive regional architecture.
Speaking at the regular press briefing in Hanoi on August 22, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said that Vietnam-Australia relations are witnessing “increased political trust” and their “defense and security cooperation are effective,” besides good signals on other aspects.
Defense is likely another area Vietnam wants to promote during Morrison’s visit, considering Hanoi and Canberra on November 8, 2018 signed the Declaration on Joint Visions for Enhancing Defense Cooperation.
One more fact of note: at the same press briefing, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also confirmed the country’s participation of the first ASEAN-U.S. maritime exercise, which will take place in Gulf of Thailand from September 2 to 6. Vietnam’s outreach to balance against Chinese coercion continues.
Du Nhat Dang is a Vietnamese reporter who works for Tuoi Tre newspaper in Vietnam. He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism and Communication, University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. He is a fellow at the Reporting ASEAN program, which supports articles about ASEAN.