Vietnam is edging closer to Australia as it seeks broader international help in checking China’s expansion in the disputed South China Sea.
On March 15, the two countries signed a strategic partnership to increase high-level dialogue, marking an upgrade to other partnerships in effect since 2009, the Australian foreign affairs department says. The partnership includes pledges to address “security threats,” and work together on “maritime policymaking.”
Australia and Vietnam reached the agreement as Vietnam seeks wider help in keeping the more powerful Beijing in check in the contested South China Sea. Australia is also looking for more inroads into Southeast Asia, where it has security and business interests.
“To the extent they’re both concerned about especially things like freedom of navigation and the East (China) Sea they have a shared interest with Vietnam in keeping the sea lanes open,” said Frederick Burke, partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.
Converging maritime interests
China and Vietnam dispute sovereignty over parts of a resource-rich sea that stretches across 3.5 million square kilometers from Hong Kong to Borneo. Taiwan and three other Southeast Asian countries have claims in the same sea.
Vietnam is pursuing friendships with multiple nations to protect fishing boats, offshore energy exploration and its sovereignty claims, analysts say.
“Vietnam has been looking for friends and support everywhere,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore. “It has been diversifying.”
Australia, a long-time U.S. ally facing its own problems with China, belongs to a quadrilateral alliance of Western-aligned countries including India, Japan and the United States.
Heads of state from that group met in Manila in November to discuss how to keep the sea open. Australia and Japan called then for a “rules-based order” and “respect for international law.”
Vietnam and India upgraded their strategic partnership last year, and in 2014 Japan agreed to sell Vietnam six maritime surveillance vessels. This month the United States sent an aircraft carrier group to Vietnam, the first visit of its kind.
South China Sea dispute
Sailors died in Sino-Vietnamese clashes at sea 1974 and 1988. In 2014, boats from China and Vietnam rammed each other after China let its chief offshore driller place on oil rig in the sea.
Beijing has upset its rival South China Sea claimants over the past decade by building up small, disputed islets for possible military use and passing coast guard vessels through waters near the other countries. Australia does not have a claim.
Australia might help the quadrilateral alliance monitor the South China Sea, said Stuart Orr, professor of strategic management at Deakin University in Australia. The Vietnam partnership “provides Australia with a closer physical presence and another source of information about the region,” Orr said.
But both Australia and Vietnam count China as their top trading partner, meaning they are likely to avoid confronting China at sea.
“I don’t think they’re going to pull up an aircraft carrier like the U.S. did last week,” Burke said.
Uncertain US role
Vietnam may be keen on Australia because it can’t tell what the United States will do in the South China Sea dispute, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. U.S. President Donald Trump has not clarified a political and economic policy for Asia, scholars in the region say.
“With the (multicountry foreign) policy, Vietnam can build up some kind of counterbalance against China in the case of the absence of American presence in the region,” Nguyen said. “Even though Australia is a second-tier power, in some sense they can make up for the U.S. in some aspects when the U.S. is going back to an America-first policy.”
Australian business interests
Australia signed the partnership with Vietnam to try for tighter relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, analysts say. It sees the group of countries, including Vietnam, as key to pan-Asian security as well as a market for Australian companies.
The association covers about 630 million people, including fast-growing consumer markets such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam itself. Vietnam can “facilitate” Australia’s ties in the larger bloc, Nguyen said.
Australian firms sometimes bid on water management projects in Vietnam, Burke said. This month the budget airline Vietjet said it would launch flights between Ho Chi Minh City and the Australian city of Brisbane to help regional “integration and trade exchange.”
Trade between Australia and Vietnam in 2016 and 2017 reached $9 billion, making Vietnam Australia’s 15th largest trading partner.
On March 17 and 18, Australia hosted its first special summit with ASEAN with an eye toward “shared security challenges and securing greater opportunities for our businesses,” the Australian government said on an event website.