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Vietnam: The Advantages of a Flexible Foreign Policy

27 Jan 2023
By Richard Broinowski AO
The Presidential Palace of Vietnam. Source: Jorge Láscar/

Australian foreign policy could take some cues from Vietnam. A flexible diplomacy with the ability to shift alignments in the interests of national security is what Australia needs. 

During my three years in Hanoi – 1983 to 1985 – Vietnam was still devastated by the French and American wars. It was regarded, with reason, as a run-down pariah state, a political and economic satellite of the Soviet Union.

Cabinet ministers had cordial relations with Eastern (Communist) bloc envoys at the party level, but guarded contact with the relatively few Western ambassadors in town. The United States had no presence. China had a big embassy, but its communications with the foreign ministry were limited. Chinese diplomats were busy fomenting moral outrage among Asian neighbours against Vietnam for invading Cambodia in 1979.

Four of the then five members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) also had envoys: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, but not Singapore. All but the Indonesian ambassador had sour relations with the foreign ministry. But the Indonesians had some sympathy for Vietnam’s summary ouster of Pol Pot from Phnom Penh. They saw Vietnam as a bulwark against possible southern expansion of China’s influence.

As for Australia, under the newly elected Hawke government, the country was attempting to rebuild economic bridges with Vietnam: revive aid and trade, get permission to look for missing-in-action soldiers, gauge the effect of Agent Orange on Australian troops (though not Vietnamese civilians), return Australia’s comprehensive real estate holdings in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to state ownership, and begin a dialogue with Vietnam as to when it might withdraw its troops from Cambodia.

Meanwhile, ten years after the Vietnam War ended, the nation was still in bad shape. The country suffered from high inflation, a stagnant economy, an inefficient state bureaucracy, huge trade imbalances with the Soviet bloc, and isolation from the broader Western community. Most of its 60 million people were desperately poor. In Hanoi, the roads were bad, and electricity was intermittent. The buildings were drab, and food was scarce, especially during the bleak northern winter.

A transformative watershed began in July 1986. Following agitation by more progressive members of the Politburo, Resolution 32 emphasised the urgent need for reform, including ending Vietnam’s international isolation. The Foreign Ministry needed to develop constructive co-existence with China, the United States, ASEAN, and peaceful resolution of the Cambodian problem.  The Communist Party’s Sixth National Congress in December of that year marked the introduction of Doi Moi, a radical policy of restoration. It aimed to shift the focus from military strength alone, to economic development and diplomacy.

In following years, Doi Moi grew into a comprehensive plan of action. At the seventh Congress in 1991, the Party resolved to expand its contacts with other countries and international organisations. Diplomatic relations rose from 23 countries in 1985 to 163 in 1995. Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 1998, and the World Trade Organization in 2007. It was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2008. It diversified the scope of its foreign relations to cover politics, defence, and security, as well as economics.

Vietnam sought predictable and stable relations with all countries. In particular, it followed non-aligned nations in resolving neither to have military alliances nor foreign military bases, nor to rely on any other country to counter a third. By the first decade of the 21st century, it had developed formal partnerships with over 16 countries. These were variously known as “comprehensive” or “strategic,” depending on the scope of issues to be covered. Partners ranged from several European countries to many in Asia, and some in Africa and the Americas. China, Russia, India, Japan, and the United States were among the most significant. On 15 March 2018, Australia’s relationship with Vietnam was upgraded to a strategic partnership, encompassing political issues, trade and investment, education, defence, and security and immigration.

In 1986, I had asked Nguyễn Cơ Thạch, Vietnam’s then foreign minister, when the heavy presence of Soviet Russia in Vietnam would diminish. Thạch told me not to worry about the Russians, who would soon be gone. “Worry if you must about the Chinese, who had occupied Vietnam over centuries, and could do so again if we are not careful.” His claim was valid. China under various dynasties had occupied Vietnam over long periods, the longest being from 111 BC to 939 AD.

Thạch’s concern about China explains much about Vietnam’s multi-dimensional foreign policy. As much as anything else, constructive relations with a host of countries may provide Vietnam with a hedge against possible future Chinese aggression. Such a hedge would fall short of a security guarantee, but solidarity of the group could focus collective diplomacy on an enemy and make each of its members more self-reliant.

Not that Vietnam has ever been shy about defending itself – several times it has fought engagements against China beginning with the rebellion of the Trung sisters in 40 AD, against France after the Pacific War, and against the United States and its allies between 1960 and 1975. Most recently, Vietnam convincingly defended itself against a Chinese invasion at the beginning of 1979. In the “lesson” China tried to teach it for ousting Pol Pot, Vietnamese forces killed thousands of Chinese soldiers who were invading Cao Bang Province, and forced their withdrawal after only 27 days.

Less success has been forthcoming from Vietnam’s low-key resistance against Chinese naval forces, which since around 2014 have intermittently harassed or rammed Vietnamese fishing vessels in contested waters near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The most serious conflict took place in 2019, when Chinese ships forced a Vietnamese drilling rig to leave what Vietnam alleged was part of its exclusive fishing zone, but which was claimed by China as part of its nine-dash exclusive zone. This incident created a toxic anti-Chinese atmosphere among the Vietnamese public.

Contrast Vietnam’s mix of resistance and flexible diplomacy approach towards China with Australia’s. Hanoi bends its foreign policy like bamboo, in which various courses of resistance and alignments are possible. But Australia has manoeuvred itself into what appears to be an impossible situation – while trying to restore good relations with China, the government in Canberra has been busily making it unavoidable that Australian militarily forces would join those of the United States in a war with China over Taiwan.

Richard Broinowski AO was Australia’s ambassador to Vietnam from 1983 to 1985. He has served as president of AIIA New South Wales.

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