Policies to engage Australian and Vietnamese youth is a vital missing ingredient in a bilateral relationship of growing significance, argue Grace Corcoran and Nina Anh McLean.
In celebration of 50 years of official Australia-Vietnam diplomatic relations, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited Hanoi over the weekend with the ambition to build a “top-tier” partnership.
This was timely. The two countries are preparing to upgrade relations to the status of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), setting the framework for increased collaboration across industry, security, and development.
Australia and Vietnam continue to seek ways to collaborate in international affairs, which could be seen as a response to both countries’ ambition to increase their roles as middle-powers in the region, managing great power strategic competition, and exploring new generation economic opportunities. These shared concerns and goals have helped forge the closest ties between Hanoi and Canberra since official diplomatic relations were established in 1973.
Vietnam is becoming an economic powerhouse within the region. We are seeing increased economic, environmental, and digital sustainable developments in line with its strategic ambitions. With this, comes a multitude of opportunities to harness and support the Australia-Vietnam relationship.
This relationship, which has been previously neglected by Australian governments, has ample room for growth. One of these areas is the engagement of youth.
There are more than 28 million people aged between 15 and 30 in Australia and Vietnam – 2.3 million more than Australia’s entire population.
Young people, who have been brought up in an increasingly globalized world, can connect with audiences and advocate at a level that is beyond the scope of most government agencies and officials. Across the world, youth movements are leading change.
While there are currently limited opportunities for young people to be heard by governments, youth involvement in decision making can build an environment in which exchanges of ideas, norms, and cultures occur more freely. In turn, this can build a deeper level of understanding and respect between countries. This is increasingly enhanced by social media, such as TikTok, whereby young people instantaneously bond over social trends and activism.
Although we are starting to see the importance of young people to the Australia-Vietnam relationship being explicitly acknowledged, there needs to be greater action.
Australia’s outdated public diplomacy policy cites young people as a key component of efforts to strengthen engagement with international stakeholders. The new policy, originally planned to be released in 2021, needs to identify a plan of action to harness the power and influence of youth networks in international relations. Rarely do we witness young people at the decision-making table.
The Australia-Vietnam Leadership Dialogue is a great example of underutilized youth diplomacy. Various levels of government continue to fund a bi-annual program in which young Australians and Vietnamese connect and learn from one another. Yet there is little government engagement with alumni after the event.
The pool of young ambassadors for the Australia-Vietnam relationship needs to be increasingly encouraged and supported by both governments to continue to work towards stronger bilateral ties.
Similarly, the New Colombo Plan Scholarship (NCP), a prestigious and generous scholarship offered annually to 150 Australian students to live, study and work in the Indo-Pacific, could be better utilized to enhance Australia’s connection to Vietnam. This year, only one person will study in Vietnam – a missed opportunity to increase our connections to the country. This is particularly true given Vietnam’s well-known prioritization of education.
There is a vibrant shift happening in Vietnam, in part from the large number of Vietnamese students studying internationally now returning to Vietnam with more open and dynamic visions of what’s possible. Regardless of whether the new dynamism is reflected in business, start-ups, or arts and culture, it is certain that as Vietnam grows economically its socio-cultural identity will grow alongside it. And arguably, at an even faster rate.
The median age in Vietnam is 32, with over 72 million people above the age of 18. Vietnam’s young people are a source of huge untapped potential. Vietnam needs to empower its next generation of leaders with the skills and knowledge to propel the country to its goal of becoming an upper-middle income country by 2035.
A national approach for young people, potentially like the NCP, should be developed by the Government of Vietnam with the support of business and industry. To develop holistically, Vietnam must support young people from lower-socio economic backgrounds, with opportunities to collaborate on initiatives and engagements both within Vietnam and bilaterally with Australia. Australia can support this through its development aid and education policies.
The large pool of English-speaking Vietnamese young people in Australia also can assist with furthering ‘brand Australia’ and promoting Australia as a destination of choice for study, travel, and investment over our competitors – if deployed effectively.
Talent pipelines of emerging Vietnamese and Australian leaders should be created within each of the two countries. Institutions already supporting the bilateral relationship should act as leaders in this area. For example, RMIT University’s recent announcement of a strategic investment of $250 million into Vietnam, will provide further opportunities for young people to continue to experience the Australia-Vietnamese relationship through avenues like education and research.
Both countries should look to their young people as key assets to support the transition to the digital economy and industry 4.0 (soon to be 5.0). Young people are arguably the most digitally literate across the globe, and even those with the most basic of skills are far more advanced than a significant number of either country’s older populations.
Just as vital is representation of young people on boards and leadership positions. There is a large and growing young population with Australia-Vietnam connections in both countries. This unique perspective and understanding will be crucial for the sustainability of the bilateral relationship.
Acknowledging the expertise that our respective youth populations can bring to the workforce is the first step in realising the true potential of our shared economic strength.
Prime Minister Albanese’s visit shows the commitment of both governments to further the Australia-Vietnam relationship. It is evident our governments are aware of the strength we hold as closer partners. The way to ensure this important bilateral relationship’s sustainability is with youth.
Grace Corcoran is the Diplomacy Project Coordinator at Asialink.
Nina Anh McLean is a Policy Analyst, Asia Strategy & Impact at RMIT University.
Nina and Grace are the Policy and Program Managers of the Australia Vietnam Leadership Dialogue respectively.