Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute
In an apparent effort to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, Vietnam and Australia recently decided to elevate their bilateral relationship to the level of a strategic partnership.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in their joint statement that they will “enhance the mutual trust and understanding to strengthen the bilateral relationship and contribute to peace and stability and prosperity in the region.”
The two nations committed to work intensively to ensure that the Asia-Pacific remains peaceful, resilient and shaped by the rules and norms that have prevailed for decades.
The partnership agreement aimed to deepen ties in defense, security, trade, investment, development and tourism.
Vietnam is Australia’s fastest growing trade partner in Asean. Exports to Vietnam have grown by 16 percent annually for the past decade.
International experts believe that of all the Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam is potentially the most eager to see concrete results from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. In June 2017, Vietnam also deepened its “extensive strategic partnership” with Japan during Prime Minister Phuc’s official visit to that country.
With their newly signed “strategic pact,” Australia and Vietnam can now multiply their capabilities to jointly meet security challenges in the Asia-Pacific.
They share not only a vision of a stable and peaceful region but also a commitment to “adhere to the rules-based order including the settlement of disputes by peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force in accordance with international law including Unclos.”
All states, large or small, can maximize political or economic gains by working within a stable, secure framework of rules when resolving disputes, preventing difficult situations from getting out of hand, and thereby preserving peace and stability.
To promote a rules-based order, the Philippines must do what it can to have its allies and Asean partners build political and economic structures that best secure our shared future.
The Philippines can play a significant role in attaining maritime security by maximizing the potential benefits of cooperation among the United States, Japan, Australia and India. But such cooperation should extend beyond the four democratic countries. They should collaborate with like-minded democracies that adhere to a rules-based order.
With the cooperation among the four democratic countries, there can be a credible deterrence to any security threat in the South China Sea.
The Philippines should also look beyond Asean and continue engaging external powers—the United States, Japan, India, Australia—in its pursuit of continued peace and prosperity. In doing so, it should likewise encourage them to engage with one another so as to reduce mutual suspicion and to contain rival ambitions in the region.
In 2015, the Philippines and Australia deepened their seven decades of diplomatic relations through the signing of a comprehensive partnership agreement grounded on the shared values of democracy, human rights, and adherence to rule of law.
Through the Joint Declaration on Australia-Philippines Comprehensive Partnership, they committed to work together more closely on identified areas where their economic and strategic interests converge.
The Philippines can look to Australia, which was able to find a middle path between the United States and China, for foreign policy inspiration. Australia was able to expand its security cooperation with the United States while growing its economic partnership with China. While working to ensure the prosperity and well-being of its citizens, its strategic security interests were not sacrificed.
The challenge is to maintain independence as a sovereign nation while keeping interdependence working for economic stability and growth.
If they do not maximize the existing bilateral or multilateral partnerships to reduce dependence on China’s growing “hegemonic influence” in the Asia-Pacific, both claimant and nonclaimant states clearly stand to lose.