Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 has highlighted its competence as a country. It has unequivocally won the peace. It manages its relations with China with firmness and diplomacy.
In Hanoi in the early 80s, the small group of representatives from non-communist countries frequently asked itself whether, having won the war, Vietnam would win the peace.
On May 21, the international magazine, Politico, taking account of both public health and economic factors, ranked Vietnam the global leader on COVID-19 responses.
Vietnam had 334 reported cases and no deaths as of June 17. These figures are credible, not least because the Centres for Disease Control has a hundred-strong team in the country.
Vietnam’s success on public health can be attributed to its experience with the SARS epidemic, rapid responses with quarantine, innate Confucian discipline and, a tad less attractively, the controls available to a Marxist-Leninist surveillance state.
The Vietnamese economy, particularly impacted by COVID-19-driven supply chain interruptions and blows to transport and tourism, is unlikely to reach the government’s current target of 5 per cent growth for 2020. But it may well reach the IMF forecast of 2.7 per cent, a much rosier picture than for comparable countries. Vietnam’s rise has been remarkable.
When Saigon fell in 1975, Vietnam was already exhausted. Because in 1978 Vietnam occupied Cambodia, the former fought a bitter border war with China, the ASEAN states ostracised it and most of the West denied it aid.
In 1991, the Cambodian Settlement brought the 40 years of Indochina wars to a close. The back-of-envelope estimate was that Vietnamese economic development was about a generation behind most of south-east Asia.
Since then, Vietnam’s economy has grown faster than those of its neighbours; it joined ASEAN; and it developed significant ties with the West, most notably the United States .
Vietnam’s response to COVID-19 has highlighted its competence as a country. It has unequivocally won the peace.
Less obvious is that while Vietnam is neither the largest nor wealthiest country in south-east Asia, it is the most crucial in ASEAN’s attempts to manage China’s strategic expansionism. Its diplomacy is arguably the most skillful in the region.
Vietnam’s diplomatic abilities have been shaped by profound historical factors, including a 2000-year contest with China and the French and American wars. Its external policies have a crucial salience for its existence as country. Except from the fall of Singapore to the battle of Midway, Australian diplomacy has never had to work within this sort of psychological framework.
The existential quality of Vietnam’s diplomacy has made it both assertive and measured in its dealings with China. It hedges. It can act forcefully but it assesses risk, seeking to achieve policy balance, sometimes using a second, and discreet, party-to- party channel to Beijing.
In navigating its relationship with China , Vietnam has been at the forefront of the south-east Asian countries in pushing for a code of conduct in the South China Sea (SCS) and has opposed a number of actions which China has taken there, including the latter’s recent establishment of administrative districts in the contested Paracel and Spratley islands.
But while Vietnam has mooted taking China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration on South China Sea issues, it has yet to do so. Vietnam permits limited ship visits by the United States navy but has resisted suggestions to lease to the Americans their erstwhile base at Cam Ranh Bay.
Vietnam has subscribed to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but has not authorised BRI projects in Vietnam.
Because of COVID-19, to the ire of China on February 1, Vietnam closed its borders with that country, including cancellation of flights. But it did not engage in a blame game on Wuhan.
Our foreign policy system understands the importance of Vietnam – but not enough. While Scott Morrison made a welcome visit to Hanoi last year. it was the first bilateral visit by an Australian prime minister since 1992.
It is time we promoted Vietnam to the first tier of our Asian relationships. By so doing we will further our interests.
And, yes, we may even learn something in the process.