During the Cold War, U.S. professor Nicholas John Spykman championed the planning of security policies through the lens of geography, or “Rimland theory,” which reshaped world politics. As a result of this geopolitical theory, which stresses the vital importance of the maritime fringe of the Eurasian continent, Vietnam and other weaker littoral countries unfortunately experienced the bloody legacies of geopolitical competitions among rivalry powers.
Since it emerged as an independent nation-state after the 1975 reunification, Vietnam, as some experts argue, has had to struggle with “the tyranny of geography.” The country’s geographical proximity to and asymmetric bilateral relationship with China make it difficult for Vietnam to broaden its ties with the United States and its allies. As a major study by Do Thanh Hai notes, China and Vietnam are “ideological bedfellows” and have experienced ebbs and flows in their relations throughout recorded history. Given this, one may wonder how Vietnam would deepen its strategic partnerships with different powers while sustaining mutual political trust with China.
The recent visit of Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue to Australia and New Zealand sheds new light on the country’s post-COVID foreign policy. One the one hand, Hue’s visits to the largest economies in the South Pacific matches the momentum of their bilateral relations. Just like the U.S.-Vietnamese ties, bilateral relations between Vietnam and the two biggest US. allies in Oceania have turned from foe to friend in recent decades.
Australia and New Zealand have provided numerous aid programs to help nation-building and support a stronger Vietnam. The soft power of these countries in Vietnam could be found in education sector, where Australia and New Zealand are among the largest donors for educational reforms.
RMIT University Vietnam, Australia’s largest services investment in Vietnam, is a bright icon in Australia-Vietnam ties. The university is now Vietnam’s leading international university and has over 17,000 alumni in Vietnam – many of whom are holding important positions in the country’s governing bodies.
“Our goal is to play a vital and growing part in skilling Vietnam’s future workforce and supporting industry innovation,” said Professor Claire Marken, pro vice-chancellor and general director of RMIT Vietnam, in our recent email interview. “The role RMIT University intends to play in Vietnam in the future is to create positive impact and address shared challenges. With Vietnam operating as the heart of RMIT’s regional network, RMIT University’s goals are to partner with industry and government and to accelerate sustainable development in the Asia Pacific through inclusive partnerships. Our role is also act as a front door for Australia to understand and engage with Southeast Asia.”
For Australia and Vietnam in particular, 2023 marks their 50th anniversary of normalization and Hue’s timely visit matters for both sides to trigger a deeper and more comprehensive partnership. Vietnam is in high need of economic recovery after almost three years of COVID-19 lockdowns. The country is proactively widening and diversifying critical markets to rehabilitate domestic export-processing industries for economic growth. This offers ample spaces for the presence and cooperation of Australia and New Zealand in Vietnam in addition to traditional sectors, such as education, poverty reduction, and governance reforms.
The Mekong Delta, which is feeling the transboundary dire impacts of upstream Mekong dams, emerges as the next hotspot for cooperation and investment in Vietnam. Australia and New Zealand should consider collaboration in the Delta on human resources development, agricultural innovation, participatory climate change adaptation, and public health.
On the other hand, the rising security concerns in the Mekong region and South China Sea necessitate Vietnam to befriend strategic partners. The visit of Vietnam’s National Assembly chairman underscores how far the trilateral ties could go, and their impact in the region remain to be seen. Hue’s visit to underpin partnerships with key powers in the South Pacific – where China is expanding its strategic presence and influence – follows the recent critical visits of Vietnam’s highest ranking leaders to critical partner countries, including the United States and China, further reaffirms Hanoi’s so-called “bamboo diplomacy” policy of independence and refusing to take sides in international disputes.
The three-day visit of Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to Beijing in late October matters for Sino-Vietnamese political ties, but other Vietnamese state leaders’ trips to extra-regional powers and participation in regional important forums such as the ASEAN and APEC summits reveal the country’s efforts to identify itself as a sincere, active, and responsible member in regional and international communities. Vietnam, as a rising economy and strategically important party in Southeast Asia, is eager to diversify and deepen its relationship with different partners, especially the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, among other countries to sustain peace and stability in the region.
Hue’s visits to Australia and New Zealand are expected to bolster bilateral relations of the involved countries after the COVID-19 crisis. This critical trip, in addition to the three visits of high-ranking state and party leaders in late 2022, helps clarify how Vietnamese leaders manage to contend with “the tyranny of geography” as they continue to broaden diplomatic options for nation building and security.