Does Vietnam support AUKUS?

Australian Foreign Minister Maryse Payne (2nd, left) during her visit to Hanoi and met her Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son on November 9, 2021

The formation of the three-power alliance AUKUS has created different waves of reactions from many countries, even among ASEAN member countries. If the Philippines and Singapore support the tripartite alliance, Indonesia and Malaysia oppose it. Meanwhile, although there is no official statement, many experts believe that Vietnam’s neutrality can be interpreted as an acceptance and support for AUKUS.

To learn more about the stance from Hanoi, RFI Vietnamese interviewed Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai. He is a research fellow at the Center for Policy Futures, Department of Humanities and Sociology, University of Queensland, Australia.


RFI English: Not long ago, in an article published, he said that Hanoi’s neutrality could be understood as Vietnam’s support for the nuclear submarine fleet project of Australia and the AUKUS alliance. So, on what basis to confirm this?

Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai: First of all, I would like to update that, on November 22, after more than two months of forming AUKUS, Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton, US Charge d’Affaires Michael Goldman, and British High Commissioner Victoria Treadll on behalf of the governments of the three countries, officially signed an agreement to exchange sensitive information on nuclear submarine propulsion systems, realizing a step of the AUKUS agreement. In my opinion, there are four main bases for judging Hanoi’s “implicit” support for the AUKUS alliance.

Firstly, Vietnam’s foreign policy is to put the national interest first. This means that what does not affect and infringe on the national interests of Vietnam, Vietnam will not object; and what is necessary to protect national interests, Vietnam will also do. This can also be seen as pragmatic foreign policy. But, try to ask, is there any country in the world that does not put national interests first in international relations? This is a historical lesson, and also the key point that I want to emphasize is that from now on all assessments of Vietnam’s reaction or behavior to international issues need to look through the policy lens. This is from Vietnam.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when defending his decision to join the AUKUS alliance and terminate the contract with the French side to build conventional diesel submarines to switch to building a force of eight nuclear submarines, also said it was in the national interest. If it is in the national interest, no one can object. Vietnam understands that, so if there is an objection, it will not change anything but only damage the good relationship between the two sides.

Second, the traditional security environment that Vietnam is most concerned about today is the East Sea (South China Sea) area. And, the most immediate threat to the security and sovereignty of Vietnam’s sea and islands also comes from and in the East Sea, which everyone understands is China. Although no one can underestimate the will to defend Vietnam’s sovereignty, comparing the forces, it is too big a disproportion. It will be difficult for Vietnam to stand up to China on its own if there is a conflict. So, if there is a force supporting Vietnam, why is Vietnam protesting? Note that both Vietnam and Australia share a common perception of the security threat posed by China, whether it is openly expressed or not.

The third is Hanoi’s strategic relationship with Canberra, London, and Washington. Currently, Vietnam has a strategic partnership with the UK and Australia. As for the US, although it is only a comprehensive partnership, it is actually strategic. Temporarily putting aside the economic aspect, it can be seen that the deep strategic partnership with the three AUKUS countries will help Vietnam improve its defense capacity. And, the involvement of these countries in the East Sea region will also indirectly enhance Vietnam’s power against China.

Finally, it is the involvement of major countries and potential countries in the region. Vietnam advocates welcoming the participation of other countries to ensure stability and security in the region, especially the East Sea. This is evident in the statement of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman when asked about the AUKUS alliance and Australia’s development of nuclear submarines.

He said that the reason that is considered “sensitive” that Vietnam does not openly support AUKUS is to avoid Beijing’s perception that Hanoi is on the side of Western democracies. This is also the consistent work of Hanoi with its pragmatic foreign policy and policy of “four Nos.” The question is, is this policy really effective for Vietnam, if Western democracies do not interfere in the East Sea issues, how will Vietnam respond to aggressive China?

Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai: Vietnam’s Defense White Paper 2019 shows that Vietnam’s defense policy has shifted from “three Nos” to “four Nos“, “one depends” and “at the same time, strengthen defense cooperation with countries to enhance their ability to defend the country and address common security challenges” which I call a “non-additional” one. It is extremely important to show that the current defense policy of Vietnam is appropriate and effective to some extent. In other words, this affirms that Vietnam “does not” restrict military cooperation with other countries, including countries belonging to the Quartet (QUAD, including Australia, Japan, India, and the US) and AUKUS).

Through “unlimited” cooperation with each country, Vietnam has strategic relations with the countries in the alliances, which will indirectly bring Vietnam into a part without having to directly participate. join these alliances. Thus, Vietnam’s defense policy is “5 no” and “one optional” which I divide into “4 non-diplomatic“, “1 not substantial” and “1 subject to conditions.”

In addition, over the past time, Vietnam has continuously strengthened and deepened defense cooperation with other countries. The latest example is the agreements with Japan on the export of military equipment and weapons to Vietnam (2020), mainly in the naval field, and the two sides strengthen cooperation on network security (2021).

On the assumption, “if Western democracies did not interfere in the South China Sea issues,” I think this would definitely not happen. China’s rise and its ambitions and behavior in international relations have changed (in the way Western countries see it) that has caused the world and Western countries to change their politics as well their policies with China. A new playing field and arena in the 21st century has been established – that is the vast Indo-Pacific region, in which the East Sea is the center. So the whole world, especially the US, UK, and the European Union (EU) as a bloc, or individual countries in the EU like Germany and France, are watching and adjusting their strategies for this area.

Therefore, it will not be easy for China to “become a king and become a general” and “manipulate” in this area or in the East Sea. However, Western countries should not sacrifice their own international law for their own economic gain. They need to understand that economic benefits are only short-term benefits, while loss of autonomy and established rules is the long-term bad thing. Western countries and us should not have the illusion that, when China’s regime changes, they will give up their sovereignty ambition.

It can be said that the presence of AUKUS has a positive impact on Vietnam and other countries in the region when this alliance is implicitly understood to counter China’s maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, it has been argued that Hanoi’s silence is not a strategic choice. From a personal perspective, how do you see it?

Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai: To put it bluntly and somewhat colloquially, you should not believe in anything in diplomatic language. What diplomats say is not necessarily true of the actual actions they do behind it and not necessarily everything to say directly, tell the truth. Moreover, on the AUKUS issue and Australia’s construction of a nuclear submarine force, Hanoi has not been silent. Hanoi has approved the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express its views.

Here, I ask the opposite question in an objectively frank way. If Vietnam voiced its opposition, or openly supported it, what would Vietnam gain? First, will the voice of opposition cause AUKUS to disintegrate and Australia to abandon the construction of a nuclear submarine force when this has been confirmed in the AUKUS agreement? Let’s take the case of Indonesia and Malaysia as an example. Here, I note that the language of these two countries only stops at expressing concern, not protesting or condemning. Their language should not be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Second, speaking of support, is Vietnam welcomed by AUKUS countries and shared or supported in submarine technology? From the past until now, at least since Vietnam implemented the renovation policy, implemented the policy of diversification and multilateralization of international relations, Hanoi has never publicly voiced support or opposition to a which alliance. Moreover, expressing support also means that Hanoi has indirectly broken its policy of “no alliance.”

Australia’s possession of a nuclear submarine force, while leaving the door open for the possibility of cooperation in response to future challenges if necessary – the meaning of “1 without substance” and “1 conditional” above is here.

From another perspective, the formation of AUKUS and China’s militarization of disputed islands and exploitation of maritime resources has increased regional tensions and inhibited the vital freedom of navigation for global trade. Therefore, the completion of the Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC) and the Declaration of Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea (DOC) is more urgent than ever. Can you tell us about the progress of DOC implementation and COC negotiation between ASEAN and China so far?

Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai: Since the DOC was born in 2002, to some extent, it has established a framework for relevant parties, firstly those with disputes in the East Sea, to behave on the claim of their sovereignty over these waters. However, it can be said that the DOC is meaningful but ineffective because the DOC is only a statement of appeal and recommendation, not binding. Therefore, the parties in ASEAN are still determined to promote negotiations to reach a binding and substantive COC text.

However, no further progress has been made so far. This delay is due to many factors, partly because there are many disagreements about the provisions of the draft COC, partly because the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the meetings to be postponed; and partly due to China’s deliberate delay while continuing a series of aggressive and bullying actions in the South China Sea. China’s actions go against the spirit of the DOC.

On November 22, 2021, at the Special Summit to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the partnership, ASEAN and China continued to affirm their commitment to fully and effectively implement the DOC and the need to maintain, creating a favorable environment for negotiations on the COC. And, hope to soon sign a substantive and effective COC in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS, which has been agreed by both sides from time to time. It can be seen that this statement is nothing new, and it is still just a commitment on paper, and when to continue negotiations to conclude the COC is an uncertain future.

I think it is very difficult to talk about the intrinsic value of the COC if it does not satisfy two conditions: ensuring the validity of the implementation of UNCLOS 82 and the interests of countries related to the East Sea, including countries external or unrelated to the dispute, must be guaranteed. These are again two crucial things that China has always wanted.

In fact, Vietnam, like other members of ASEAN, is facing a “dilemma” in expressing its response to AUKUS. On the one hand, Vietnam needs an ally to maintain order in the region and conflicts in the South China Sea. On the other hand, Hanoi needs to maintain its relationship with Beijing for economic reasons. However, let’s try to imagine an assumption that, for a certain reason or a socio-political event, when required, Vietnam will have to choose China or the US and its democratic allies. The West. According to you, to make a decision, Vietnam must be based on what factors?

Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai: I still reaffirm my position from the beginning and be consistent that Vietnam has sent a clear signal of its position, which I consider to be in favor of AUKUS.

As for the assumption, and the related question, I understand that you mean the domestic political events that led to Vietnam having to choose sides. This question is very difficult for anyone to answer. Vietnam has historical, cultural, economic, and de facto territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea – that’s true; has an important geostrategic position in the Indo-Pacific region with complicated developments in international relations, and today is also part of the globalized and integrated world. Therefore, if you get caught up in complicated developments in this area, it is inevitable.

Ideally, it is not necessary to choose a side, because either side will be detrimental to Vietnam, affecting the realization of the goal of developing a powerful Vietnam as current Vietnamese leaders say. It is also the legitimate desire and aspiration of the Vietnamese people after decades of war. However, in my opinion, the important thing is that in any situation, the most important factor to make a foreign policy decision is that the interests of the nation-state, including territorial sovereignty, are paramount upper.

In recent years, what are the highlights of the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and Australia?

Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai: Overall, the relationship between Vietnam and Australia has experienced ups and downs, but up to this point, I think that the bilateral relationship is at the best moment since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1973. Comprehensive bilateral cooperation in all aspects, from the economy, trade, and investment to security and defense, education, and training. Every year, the two sides still exchange high-level delegations and high-ranking leaders of the two countries take advantage of meetings and contacts on the occasion of attending multilateral forums. Political trust is growing between the two sides. In 2019, during his official visit to Vietnam, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the relationship between Vietnam and Australia is a relationship of close friendship.

The two-way trade relationship between Vietnam and Australia is really a bright spot in the bilateral relationship, especially when Australia is seeking and promoting market diversification in the context of trade tensions with China. Over the past 20 years, the two countries’ trade turnover has averaged nearly 9%, making it one of Australia’s fastest-growing trade relationships with foreign partners. The two countries are making efforts to develop and soon sign the Enhanced Economic Cooperation Strategy, creating a new impetus for trade and investment relations between the two sides, especially helping to recover the economy due to the impact of COVID-19.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the two countries have supported each other. In addition, from the beginning of 2021 until now, despite the complicated development of the pandemic, leaders and senior officials of the two countries have maintained contact and exchanges. Notably, the phone conversation between Vietnam’s Defense Minister Phan Van Giang and Australian Defense Minister in November 2021. Accordingly, Mr. Peter Dutton thanked Vietnam for supporting the upgrading of ASEAN-Australia relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership, as well as the statement of the ASEAN Chairman after the ASEAN-Australia Summit in the context of expressed concern in ASEAN about the AUKUS agreement and Australia’s plan to have nuclear submarines. At the same time, he confirmed that Australia will continue to transport Vietnam’s Level 2 Field Hospital to the Peacekeeping Mission in 2022 and forces in the coming years if conditions permit. The two defense ministers also invited each other to pay official visits to each country.

Currently, Vietnam and Australia are discussing upgrading their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership by 2023 on the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations as previously agreed by the two countries’ prime ministers.

RFI Vietnamese thanks, Dr. Nguyen Hong Hai. (Translated)