Vietnam and Australia are preparing for prime ministerial visits in both directions this year, as they mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. It is expected that an upgrade of the current strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership will be announced during either Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s two-day visit to Vietnam, which will take place on June 3-4, or his counterpart Pham Minh Chinh’s visit to Australia, which is slated for September. The establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership will testify to the high levels of political trust that now exist between the two countries, and mark a likely expansion of the existing cooperation into new areas such as climate change, digital technology, the green economy, and energy.
The progress has been impressive since the two nations became strategic partners five years ago. Take economics, trade, and investment as an example. At present, Australia is Vietnam’s seventh-largest trading partner, while Vietnam ranks tenth among Australia’s top trading partners. Total two-way trade jumped up to nearly $16 billion last year from $6 billion in 2014 and totaled $3.4 billion in the first quarter of 2023. In April of this year, the economic and trade ministers of the two countries held the Third Vietnam-Australia Economic Partnership Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, as per the agreement reached in the Australia-Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy (AVEEES) signed by the two countries in 2021, and agreed to establish a trade ministerial dialogue to further boost bilateral trade.
Education and training have also been a highlight of recent bilateral relations. Australia has emerged as one of the top foreign education markets for Vietnamese students. As of December 2022, more than 22,000 Vietnamese students were studying at Australian educational institutions, accounting for 4 percent of international students and making Vietnam one of the top five countries with the most international student visa holders. So 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 government schemes, including the New Colombo Plan.
The third area of cooperation that has seen rapid expansion is defense and security. Since the first bilateral Dialogue on Regional Security issues in April 1998 and following the appointment of defense attachés to the two nations’ respective capitals in 1999 and 2000, Vietnam and Australia have signed agreements, established mechanisms, and conducted meetings at diverse levels in order to advance and deepen cooperation in the field. These include the annual dialogue on defense cooperation since 2001, and the establishment of a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation in 2010, which lays a framework for a strategic dialogue on defense 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-Defense Dialogue at the vice-ministerial level (known as the 2+2 Dialogue). Defense ministers of the two countries have held an annual dialogue since 2013 and five years later signed the Joint Vision Statement on Further Defense Cooperation, 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 Dialogue was conducted on February 22 of this year after a three-year interruption due to COVID-19.
Against the background of the impressive progress in the above-mentioned areas, as well as in other areas such as agriculture, innovation, and tourism, the two countries would seem to require an adhesive to cement further the bilateral relationship. That glue could be the growing cultural exchanges and people-to-people ties, which have been identified by Vietnamese National Assembly Chairperson Vuong Dinh Hue as an important pillar in the Vietnam-Australia strategic partnership.
Cultural exchange is a broad concept. It might include the introduction of movies, cuisine, and arts to the public in both directions. Different Vietnamese generations have been deeply impressed by Australian classic films that were featured on Vietnamese television in the 1980s and 1990s, including “Cybergirl” (2001), “Ocean Girl” (1999), “Return to Eden” (1983), “Top Secret Mission” (1995), and “All the Rivers Run” (1983). Permeated with Australian cultural values, these films have penetrated the minds of many Vietnamese.
However, the Vietnamese people’s knowledge of Australia goes beyond these movies. For a long time, Australia in the imagination of Vietnamese, especially among the youth, has been associated with one of its national icons: kangaroos.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that there are now more than 240,000 Australian alumni in Vietnam. This is because the 80,000 Vietnamese students not only brought their spouses and children with them to Australia, but often they were visited by their parents at least once during their stay in the country. On their return to Vietnam, the alumni and their relatives took home with them good impressions of Australia. In particular, few of them would forget the image of the country’s unique wildlife. These “alumni” become storytellers about the kangaroos and koalas with others in their neighborhoods and workplaces, instilling in their listeners the desire to meet some of these unique creatures.
And so, a proposal for cementing ties suggests itself: Why can’t Australia gift some kangaroos to Vietnam, in order to symbolize the cultural connectedness, geographic proximity, and shared embrace of an asset that the two nations value?
Direct flights connecting Vietnam and Australia have brought the two countries closer to each other, but in the perception of many Vietnamese, Australia is still a far-flung land. That thinking would change if Vietnamese could see kangaroos in the country’s zoos. Then, for Vietnamese, Australia would be much more of a neighbor and become, as former Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Hanoi in 2019, “mates” who “stay together; try and understand each other; work through difficult issues, through problems; create opportunities together; and always stick together as they pursue those opportunities together.”
Kangaroos represent a number of these attributes. They always jump forward, and never move back. They care for others and represent reconciliation by living in harmony with the surrounding environment. “Kangaroo diplomacy” with Vietnam would suggest that the two strategic partners are bound by the shared aspirations of their two peoples, who can put aside their differences and advance together into the future.