Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc wants to tie his country’s defence interests closer to Australia’s, in a strategic partnership that he hopes will move forward.
The partnership is necessary for both nations as China becomes a dominant force in this region.
Ahead of the special Asean-Australia leaders summit this weekend, Phuc has called for all nations to respect the rule of law in the South China Sea.
Phuc, in an interview to Fairfax, also said there was “vast room” to improve cooperation and two-way trade, worth $11.8 billion in 2016-17, between Australia and Vietnam.
Australia and Vietnam formally signed a strategic partnership agreement this week, which will upgrade diplomatic, defence and trade ties.
Phuc said the two nations would expand cooperation in areas including “search and rescue, counter-terrorism, anti-human trafficking, cybersecurity and water security” and also support each other in “regional cooperation mechanisms on national defense and security”.
“Maintaining peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea [the South China Sea] where global major shipping routes pass through is in the common interest and a shared goal of all countries.
“It is important that countries make active contributions to this shared goal, refrain from actions that may cause or escalate tension, resolve differences through dialogue and by peaceful means on the basis of international law,” he said.
Tensions between Vietnam and China centre on the two nations’ competing claims to the Spratlys and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
China and the Asean bloc of nations have begun negotiations over a code of conduct in the South China Sea to de-escalate tensions in the region, rather than explicitly resolve sovereignty disputes.
Mr Phuc said an effective code of conduct would maintain peace and security and, in a carefully-worded message to China.
He added that in the meantime, it is important that all countries continue to uphold the rule of law, exercise restraint and refrain from the use of force or the threat of force.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull and Phuc, signed a strategic partnership agreement in Canberra on March 15.
This document will reflect the substantial progress in bilateral relations over the last forty-five years since diplomatic relations were established in 1973.
Over the last forty-five years, Australia and Vietnam have built up strategic trust based on mutual respect and shared interests.
In 2009, Australia and Vietnam agreed to form a comprehensive partnership (2009) and in 2015 they agreed to enhance the strategic partnership.
Today both countries cooperate in six major areas: trade and investment, development assistance, education, political and diplomatic, defence and security, science and technology and people-to-people exchanges.
Vietnam is Australia’s eighth largest trading partner, while Australia is Vietnam’s fifteenth largest trading partner. Two-way merchandise exports have grown to more than $10 billion Australian dollars.
Australia is Vietnam’s nineteenth largest investor with a total of around $2 billion Australian dollars in 378 projects. Australia’s official development assistance will total around $84 million Australian dollars in 2017-18.
Vietnam is Australia’s fourth largest source of foreign students with nearly 25,000 Vietnamese students currently studying at all levels in Australia.
Both countries also work together in regional and international forums such as APEC and the East Asian Summit.
Australia and Vietnam collaborate to promote science and technology including information and communications technology. People-to-people exchanges round out the bilateral relationship.
After the strategic partnership is signed both sides will have to work drawing up a Plan of Action for the coming years. Three areas should be given priority:
First, the two sides should move to initiate a ministerial-level consultation on the economic partnership to align trade, investment and development assistance to promote the greater integration of the two countries into the regional economy.
Second, Australia and Vietnam should step up defence and security cooperation to jointly meet emerging regional security challenges.
Third, both Australia and Vietnam need to promote innovation in all aspects of their bilateral relationship.
Nearly 300,000 people in Australia are of Vietnamese ancestry.