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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Australia-Vietnam Strategic
Partnership and Security
Challenges in the South China
Sea
Carlyle A. Thayer
August 21, 2019

We request your assessment of the following issues:


Q1- What is needed to notice about the timing and context of this visit (in addition to
the fact that it is a return visit after PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Australia last year)?
ANSWER: Immediately after the 19 May 2019 general election in Australia, the new
Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the decision to pay an official visit to Vietnam in
reciprocation for the visit of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in 2018. The timing of
the visit was mutually agreed. It signals Prime Minister Morrison’s commitment to the
2018 Strategic Partnership agreement with Vietnam.
Q2- It is said that recently Canberra's foreign policy focus has shifted from Pacific
nations to Southeast Asia. What are Australia's interests in the Southeast Asia? And
what role will Vietnam play in this pivot policy of Canberra?
ANSWER: Scott Morrison announced the Pacific “Step Up” after becoming prime
minister following general elections. Australia has always given priority to both
regions in terms of declaratory policy but Southeast Asia has always been given
greater priority in practice.
Australia has substantial economic and security interests in Southeast Asia. ASEAN is
a larger trading partner than Japan or the United States. Australia has major defence
commitments to Malaysia and Singapore under the 1971 Five Power Defence
Arrangements. And Australia has political interests in ASEAN as an independent
regional institution; indeed, Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974.
Vietnam has become important to Australia since 1995 when Vietnam became
ASEAN’s seventh member. The two countries share convergent interests in a broad
range of economic, political, security and defence issues. This is why they raised
bilateral relations from comprehensive partners to strategic partners last year.
In addition, Vietnam will be ASEAN Chair in 2020 thus heightening Australia’s interest
in coordinating and working with Vietnam on regional security issues.
Q3- So far Australia has no comment on the recent tensions in the South China Sea,
with Chinese ships' breaching EEZs of Vietnam and other countries. There could be
pressure for Australia to make a strong statement after the US condemned China's
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conduct as bullying and coercion. What do you think about this silence? Why does
Australia need to raise its voice?
ANSWER: Australia has not been entirely silent. It was a party to the Trilateral Security
Dialogue joint statement along with the United States and Japan. And Australia and
the United States both addressed China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea in
the joint statement following their annual ministerial meeting. Like ASEAN, these joint
statements specifically mentioned actions that were de=stabilizing but did not
mention China by name.
Q4- Canberra has seemed quite "on and off" in countering an increasingly aggressive
China so far, even though Australia is one pillar of the "Quad" in the Indo-Pacific
region. What is your take on that?
ANSWER: China is Australia’s largest trading partner and the current prosperity of
Australia is due in no small part to this relationship. Australia is also a treaty ally of the
United States. The present government rejects that argument that Australia needs to
pick sides. Australia cannot oppose China’s aggressiveness alone and will work with
the United States and other likeminded countries such as Japan to maintain peace and
security in the region.
The Quad includes India and works on the basis of consensus. It is a dialogue forum
not an alliance. India is key, it wants to counter China over land border issues and
China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean. India does not want to give the
appearance that is has joined a. grouping that aims to contain China. In fact, on
occasion India has prevented Australia’s participation because of its memory of Prime
Minister Kevin Rudd announcing Australia’s withdrawal from the Quad 0.1 while on a
visit to China.
The Quad should be viewed as nothing more than a security dialogue and not as an
anti-China coalition.
Q5- What can Australia do to support Vietnam, as well as to protect Canberra's
strategic interests, in the South China Sea?
ANSWER: There are five pillars of cooperation in the Australia-Vietnam strategic
partnership. The first pillar is political cooperation. Australia can coordinate with
Vietnam to call out China’s aggressive behavior and argue for adherence to
international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The second pillar includes cooperation in defence, intelligence and security. This
includes the mutual exchange of strategic assessments as well as practical Australian
assistance for maritime security cooperation building.
The fifth pillar includes regional and international cooperation to address political and
security issues. The two sides can coordinate their approaches in multinational
institutions under the ASEAN umbrella as well as other international bodies such as
the United Nations.
Australia can support is strategic interests by supporting ASEAN, particularly in 2010
when Vietnam will become ASEAN Chair.
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Media Identification: Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of


New South Wales, Canberra or Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of
New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Australia-Vietnam Strategic Partnership and
Security Challenges in the South China Sea,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief,
August 21, 2019. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer).
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.