Vietnam’s engagement with regional middle powers such as Australia, India and South Korea enhances its autonomy in a time of intensified great power competition between China and the US, writes Nguyen Khac Giang.
Vietnam had an eventful June engaging with regional middle powers such as Australia, India and South Korea. Observers of Vietnam’s foreign policy are often concerned with Hanoi’s balancing act between China and the United States. However, relationships with regional middle powers also play a key role in Vietnam’s foreign policy by enhancing Vietnam’s autonomy amidst the uncertainty of the great power competition.
The month began with the arrival of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Hanoi, signalling the potential elevation of bilateral relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” by year’s end. The choice of Australia as the next comprehensive strategic partner highlights Vietnam’s efforts in solidifying its diverse network of regional partners. Australia would become the fifth country, and the first Western nation, to achieve the highest status in Vietnam’s hierarchy of diplomatic relations with foreign countries.
Despite economic ties between the two countries being somewhat below the desired level, notable progress has been made in defence cooperation, such as Australia’s assistance to Vietnam’s peacekeeping missions, military training, co-developing military medicine, and resolving consequences of the war in Vietnam. More importantly, as one of the closes U.S. allies in the region, Canberra provides an effective backchannel for Hanoi to cooperate with Washington on sensitive matters such as intelligence sharing and maritime security, without angering Beijing.
Following Albanese’s visit, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol travelled to Vietnam for his inaugural trip to Southeast Asia since assuming office. In addition to its economic importance, Seoul has the potential to be a crucial partner in Vietnam’s defence modernisation program. South Korea is now Vietnam’s third biggest arms supplier. During President Yoon’s visit, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) — which manufactures rotary wing aircraft for the ROK military and coastguard — signed a preliminary agreement with Viettel Aerospace Institute (VTX) to cooperate in producing helicopters. Earlier this year, Vietnamese Defence Minister Phan Van Giang was seen visiting Hanwha Aerospace, South Korea’s top military producer, during his trip to Seoul.
The role of another comprehensive strategic partner, India, was also evident in General Giang’s two-day visit in mid-June. Similar to South Korea, India may aid Vietnam’s arms diversification, with the reported sale of India-developed Dhruv helicopters and Akash medium-range SAM systems. Like Vietnam, India itself relies on Russian weapons. India also has a capable domestic defence industry that has experienced a 334 per cent increase in arms exports between 2017 to 2022. During General Giang’s visit, Vietnam received a gift of an active-duty missile corvette, the first warship given by India to any country. New Delhi has also extended a Defence Line of Credit worth US$600 million to Vietnam.
Of particular interest to Hanoi is India’s BrahMos missile system, which would considerably enhance Vietnam’s coastal defence capabilities. While the deal’s finalisation is contingent on Russia’s approval due to the joint nature of the project, Giang’s trip as well as recent positive news imply that a deal might be finally concluded. Furthermore, while India may not yet possess the same level of reliability as Vietnam’s other suppliers, the compatibility rooted in their reliance on Soviet/ Russian platforms offers opportunities for closer collaboration in domestic arms production, personnel training, and maintenance. In fact, the discussions between the two countries have emphasised the goal of enhancing their respective production capabilities and promoting indigenous defence industries.
India’s increasing willingness to “act east” provides an additional layer of support for Vietnam in the South China Sea. The two countries have already established strong maritime cooperation, with India’s flagship firm ONGC Videsh already exploring oil and gas in offshore central Vietnam. While the project is yet to yield significant results, the presence of an Indian company in the South China Sea holds strategic importance for Vietnam, particularly in light of China’s escalating and normalising maritime aggression in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in recent years.
Vietnam’s recent move to strengthen ties with regional middle powers could indicate concern about Russia’s reliability on key strategic issues. After its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been trying to woo Vietnam to its side. However, despite visits by high-ranking Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, first vice-chairman of the State Duma Ivan Melnikov, and chairman of the United Russia Party Dmitry Medvedev in the past year, there has been a notable absence of reciprocal visits by senior Vietnamese officials to Russia in the same period. While Russia continues to be Vietnam’s largest arms supplier for the foreseeable future, payment difficulties and the risk of sanctions have made importing weapons from Russia increasingly challenging. Moreover, Russia’s lacklustre performance in Ukraine raises further doubts on the effectiveness of Russian weapon systems. Vietnam has kept a relatively neutral position on the war in Ukraine, and has abstained from United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of the country.
While actively strengthening ties with middle powers, Hanoi remains committed to walking a fine line between the two great powers in Asia. Also in June, the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, made a stopover in Danang for a six-day visit. In late June, Le Hoai Trung, the head of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s External Relations Commission, met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. This potentially signals a breakthrough in bilateral relations later this year.
Concurrently, PM Pham Minh Chinh attended the World Economic Forum, where he engaged with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang. While this may have been coincidental, his visit might assuage Beijing’s concerns about Hanoi’s deepening relationship with Washington. A similar pattern occurred last year. In October, Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, paid a visit to China in October. This was followed by a visit by PM Chinh to the U.S. in November, where he met U.S. President Joe Biden. During this meeting, reciprocal invitations were exchanged between the leaders. A phone call subsequently took place between Trong and Biden in March 2023.
With the prospective inclusion of Australia, three out of five of Vietnam’s comprehensive strategic partners — Australia, India and South Korea — are middle powers. China and Russia, which are permanent members of the UN Security Council, are the other two comprehensive strategic partners. While maintaining stable relations with major powers ensures its strategic stability, fostering ties with middle powers enables Vietnam to enhance its capability, both diplomatically and militarily. Without such ties, achieving strategic autonomy in the current precarious geopolitical environment would be a formidable challenge for Hanoi.
Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies.
This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on 14 July 2023.