On October 24, Vietnam’s Academy of Social Sciences, in collaboration with the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, organized a conference titled “Fifty years of Vietnam-Australia Relations: Retrospect and Prospects.” In opening the event, Australian Ambassador Andrew Goledzinowski noted that the conference was taking place at the same time as six separate delegations from Vietnamese government agencies and sectors were visiting Canberra. The information may have surprised many in the audience but putting it in the context of 2023 it is largely unremarkable.
The year is coming to an end with a number of celebratory events marking the 50th anniversary of Vietnam-Australia diplomatic relations. While Vietnam is marking similar anniversaries with 20 other countries this year, only Vietnam and Australia have commemorated it with diplomatic exchanges at the highest level. Australian Governor-General David Hurley, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have all visited Vietnam this year. (This is the first year in which both the governor-general and prime minister have visited the country.) This is to say nothing of the various other Australian ministerial and high-level delegations that have visited Vietnam in 2023.
In the opposite direction, Vietnam has sent dozens of delegations to Australia, including ones led by ministers, vice-ministers, and the chief of the staff of the Vietnamese People’s Army. However, according to Vietnamese Ambassador to Australia Nguyen Tat Thanh, Vietnam’s most important visit to Australia so far this year was made by Chairman of the Central Economic Commission Tran Tuan Anh, who is also a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Politburo.
Against this background, both sides have expected that they will announce an upgrade of their relationship to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) before the year is out.
The CSP is the highest tier in Vietnam’s diplomatic relations hierarchy, a relationship that Vietnam has so far only established with five countries: China, Russia, India, South Korea, and most recently, the United States.
The idea of elevating the relationship was first suggested by Australia’s then Foreign Minister Marise Payne to her Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh in November 2020. It was then twice brought up by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison in separate respective telephone calls with his Vietnamese counterparts Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Pham Minh Chinh in January and May 2021.
With the change of government in Australia after the election in May 2022, the discussion about the upgrade bogged down until the visit of the Vietnamese National Assembly Chairperson Vuong Dinh Hue to Canberra in late November and early December. In his meetings with members of both Australia’s executive and legislative branches, Hue reached a consensus with them on the upgrade. The two sides anticipated that it would take place on the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year.
From the beginning of 2023, the celebratory drums have been actively beaten with myriad activities and the exchange of congratulatory messages between the two sides. Expectations on an upgrade were raised by the visits to Vietnam of Hurley in April and Albanese in June. As none of the visits led to a joint statement, observers in Hanoi and Canberra believe that it will be announced during a possible visit by a Vietnamese leader to Australia in the fourth quarter.
On September 7, Albanese met with Chinh on the sidelines of the ASEAN summits in Jakarta. The Australian leader called on the two sides to speed up “completing the necessary internal procedures to elevate the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the appropriate time” and repeated his invitation to Chinh to attend the Australia-ASEAN Special Commemorative Summit in March 2024. Close sources have disclosed that the two sides have agreed on a document with contents commensurate with the establishment of a CSP.
It has previously been suggested by one scholar that next year’s summit could be the occasion for the announcement of the CSP upgrade. This seems all the more likely given that well-informed sources from both sides have confirmed to this author that no other high-level visit to Australia has yet been planned between now and the end of the year.
If an upgrade does not take place, it would end a bright year on a note of slight disappointment. One anonymous source told this author that announcing the upgrade during Chinh’s attendance at the Australia-ASEAN summit next March would be less significant than doing so during a bilateral visit, given that it would be overshadowed somewhat by the summit.
Taking into account the three proverbial elements of “thiên thời” (good timing), “địa lợi” (good conditions) and “nhân hòa” (good synergy), 2023 would seem like a perfect opportunity for an upgrade.
In terms of good timing, this year not only marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations but also celebrates five years of the strategic partnership that the two nations established in 2018. In addition, the comprehensive partnership between the two nations is nearly fifteen years old. Last month, Vietnam and the United States leapfrogged directly to a CSP without going through a strategic partnership after ten years of executing the comprehensive partnership. This suggests that an upgrade in Vietnam-Australia relations is well overdue.
Regarding good conditions, tremendous achievements have been recorded in all areas of cooperation over the past five years, especially in the fields of economic and trade, education, defense and security cooperation, and people-to-people links. As far as good synergy is concerned, never has an upgrade enjoyed such staunch support from both sides.
In 1973, in response to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV)’s request, Australia moved forward to establishing diplomatic relations with DRV despite facing criticisms from its allies. This happened thanks to the strategic vision of the diplomats at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, who envisioned that Vietnam would one day become an economic powerhouse and play a crucial role in maintaining peace and security in the region. Vietnam’s economic reforms and a foreign policy of multilateralization and diversification of international relations since the late 1980s are proving the Australian diplomats’ vision accurate.
The geographical proximity and connectedness of the two nations’ culture and people, and their shared interest in an open and rule-based Indo-Pacific region, have made Vietnam and Australia natural strategic partners. Speaking at the conference on October 24, Ambassador Goledzinowski said that the fundamental reason for Australia to engage with Vietnam is that the two countries desperately need a region of “peace, prosperity, independence and sovereignty.” He argued that Vietnam’s success would contribute to building such a region, to Australia’s benefit.
There are three options that Vietnam and Australia can consider if they wish to upgrade their relationship this year. The first option is for President Vo Van Thuong and Prime Minister Albanese to make the announcement when they meet on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in San Francisco next month. The second, though slightly underwhelming, option is for it to take place via a virtual meeting between the two prime ministers, as Vietnam did with New Zealand in 2020.
The third and most ideal option would be a short but CSP-focused visit by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to Canberra before 2023 comes to a close, along the lines of President Joe Biden’s short visit to Vietnam last month. Whatever route is taken, making the upgrade this year would clearly demonstrate a stronger mutual engagement and turn 2023 from a good year to a perfect one for Vietnam-Australia relations.