Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer from the Australian Defence Force Academy spoke with VET about Vietnam’s foreign relations in 2016 and the outlook for 2017.
■ Looking back on 2016, what were the major changes in Vietnam’s political and diplomatic affairs?
The most positive domestic development for Vietnam in 2016 was the smooth leadership transition in the Party and the State ushered in by National Party Congress XII in January. Vietnam was politically stable during 2016. Secondly, its economy continued to grow at over 6 per cent and the country maintained macro-economic stability.
Vietnam’s diversification and multilateralization of external relations was conducted with great success, especially with major powers and neighbors. Vietnam’s new State President Tran Dai Quang made trips to Brunei, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, and Italy. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, meanwhile, visited China and Russia. Vietnam also received visits by the Presidents of the US, Laos, the Philippines, France and Myanmar, and the Prime Ministers of India and Cambodia.
The most successful foreign policy development was the elevation of India-Vietnam ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership during the official visit to Vietnam by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September.
In 2016 Vietnam reverted to a collective leadership with a stronger role for the Party Secretary General. Vietnam’s handling of the mass fish deaths in the central and north-central regions, caused by pollution from a steel mill belonging to Formosa Plastics, could have been quicker and more decisive. It appeared that the new leadership had some difficulties coordinating among five or more ministries.
The Ministry of National Defense acted proactively in advancing international defense cooperation. The Minister of Defense exchanged visits with Russia, China and India and received the French Defense Minister. Vietnam advanced defense relations with the UK at a time when both sides felt the strategic partnership had not reached its potential. Vietnam hosted eleven defense delegations from the major powers: one from India, two from Japan, and four each from China and the US. France and Vietnam also held their first strategic Defense Policy Dialogue.
Both President Quang and Prime Minister Phuc made get-to-know-you visits after taking office. President Quang floated the idea of changing ASEAN’s consensus decision-making process while visiting Singapore. This idea has some backers in Singapore and Malaysia. I think all of Vietnam’s top leaders were viewed as competent.
■ What challenges may Vietnam face in 2017?
Vietnam faces three major internal challenges: accelerating the equitization of State-owned enterprises to address the debt issue, maintaining momentum in the anti-corruption campaign, and further promoting grassroots democracy by universalizing the direct election of people’s committees at the local level, including the provincial level.
■ How do you view Vietnam’s foreign relations with major powers in 2017?
The major foreign policy issue facing Vietnam in 2017 will be managing its relations between China and the US and managing its relations with the US under a Trump Administration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should coordinate with relevant ministries to prepare a background brief for US Congress and Cabinet members on the TPP, to show that Vietnam will not be taking jobs away from Americans. At the same time, Vietnam has enlisted Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore to join it in lobbying for a revised TPP among the new elite in Washington. Japan and Australia are likely to support this initiative.
Vietnam-US relations held center stage at the time of President Obama’s visit last May. Since then, Secretary of State John Kerry has given more attention to the Middle East, although he did invite Mr. Dinh The Huynh, Politburo Member and Standing Member of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Central Committee’s Secretariat, to visit Washington.
In 2017, Vietnam will find it hard to be heard because it is not on Donald Trump’s list of priorities, except for withdrawing from the TPP. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh should build personal relations with the new Secretary of State after he is confirmed. In addition to lobbying for a revised TPP, Vietnam should discuss with the Trump Administration what steps it must take to be declared a market economy. Vietnam should canvas the idea of inviting President Trump to make an official visit to Vietnam at the time of the APEC Summit. Failing that, Vietnam should try to arrange sideline meetings with President Trump at the ASEAN leaders’ summit.
With China, Vietnam should continue to use existing mechanisms to ensure that high-level visits by government and Party leaders continues. The Friendly Border Exchanges should expand in scope with more practical activities. When Vietnam makes it commitment of a Level-2 field hospital to UN peacekeeping it should work closely with China, if practical. Vietnam should continue to press China for market access for Vietnamese goods and investment.
China has promised to work with ASEAN on a framework for the Code of Conduct (CoC) by the middle of 2017. China will continue to practice “smile diplomacy” in advance of the 25th commemorative summit of China-ASEAN relations. Vietnam has long been discussing the East Sea issue with China through expert level working groups and has always made it clear that it will not discuss the issue when third parties are involved.
Regionally, Vietnam should continue to develop good bilateral relations with all members of ASEAN. And it should be proactive on the policy front, with ideas and initiatives designed to strengthen the ASEAN Community and its three pillars: political security, economic and socio-cultural.
With Russia, defense cooperation between Vietnam and Russia will continue. Vietnam has the advantage of knowing Russia well and can continue to act as a bridge between Moscow and ASEAN capitals. Vietnam should be alert to any improvement in Russia-US. relations under President Trump, focused on Syria.
In 2014, Vietnam and Japan raised their relations to an Extensive Strategic Partnership in a document running to 69 paragraphs. Later, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong made a pathbreaking visit to Tokyo and issued a 31-point Joint Vision statement. The only way to strengthen this already solid bilateral relationship is to press for practical results. In 2017 there will be further opportunities for the coast guards of the two countries to conduct exercises at sea and for Vietnam to take delivery of new Japanese patrol boats. There is further scope for cooperation in UN peacekeeping and for Japanese investment in a software park in south-central Khanh Hoa province.
■ What will be the major points of Vietnam’s foreign relations in the years ahead?
Looking ahead, Vietnam should be very proactive in Washington in order to gain access to the Trump Administration and seek reassurances about the future direction of bilateral relations. When the new US Congress takes its seat, Vietnam should get to know the chairmen and staff on all relevant committees that touch on relations with Vietnam. Vietnam will have to get to know the new US Ambassador to Vietnam that President Trump will appoint.
Vietnam should use its chairmanship of APEC to make contact with all relevant countries during the year to identify their interests and concerns. The failure of APEC to advance the Doha round of trade liberalization measures led to the TPP and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiatives. Vietnam might be able to steer the direction of trade reform in this new situation.
VN Economic Times