French President Francois Hollande is paying a state visit to Vietnam from September 5 to 7. This represents a good omen for future exchanges between the two countries. The emphasis will be officially put on cultural cooperation and the reinforcement of links between Paris and Hanoi. However, the Vietnamese are expecting a lot from this visit, especially since French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian gave a speech mentioning joint EU patrols of “the maritime areas of Asia” at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last June.

According to the French ambassador to Vietnam, Hollande’s visit to Vietnam (the third by a French president since the early 1990s and the advent of the Doi Moi reform policy) aims at encouraging environmental protection measures. Furthermore, France will help Vietnam to better manage air quality by building an air quality measurement system. However, another area will be of particular interest: it is likely that Hollande and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang will examine how to strengthen the strategic partnership that the two countries signed in 2013.

It is in the interest of Vietnam to develop economic ties with this European power; likewise, Paris cares a lot about its economic interests in Southeast Asia. A report by the French Senate in 2014 (No. 723) gave high priority to exchanges with Southeast Asian countries and especially with Vietnam. Today, 300,000 Vietnamese people are living and studying in France. France is the second largest historical bilateral donor for Vietnam, just behind Japan, with $1.7 billion in cumulative aid since 1993. French exports to Vietnam were worth $858 million in 2014 and rose to $1.57 billion in 2015. There are 300 French firms operating in Vietnam, providing 26 000 jobs. With Hollande’s visit, economic and financial ties will be strengthened with 20 new bilateral measures to facilitate trades between these two partners.

But apart from these exchanges, the most important part of the discussions will focus on defense cooperation, which was also part of the 2013 strategic partnership agreement.

France has the second largest maritime domain in the world and its “Sovereignty Forces,” with 72 combat and support ships, have a long experience in warm seas. Freedom of navigation is a subject dear to France because of its overseas territories. Even if the French overseas territories are mainly in the Pacific Ocean their interest in Southeast Asia is growing each year. In the last decade, France lost considerable ground in Africa; it now needs to reposition itself in Asia.

By this visit to an historical old partner, Hollande will not only boost economic but also military ties. The timing could not have been any better; Vietnam is actually in the market for fighter jets and a more advanced missile system. After the massive leak scandal involving French submarine builder DCNS, it is necessary for the French to send a positive image in terms of their reliability and seriousness in defense cooperation. And it is also time to work out a policy to compete with the Asian superpowers. The end of the U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam made Hanoi a potential good customer for French armament manufacturers. But the competition is severe with Asian suppliers, not mention Russians or Americans. The $500 million defense credit India just offered to Vietnam for defense cooperation, combined with military deals Hanoi has signed with Tokyo, will make it very difficult for the French delegation.

On the Vietnamese side, the “rapprochement” between China and Cambodia does not augur well for its future geopolitical stability. With China’s maritime militia active in the South China Sea despite a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration denying China’s “historic rights” in the waters, it seems that China already has the power to slow down Vietnamese maritime activities. Combined with a bad relationship with Vietnam’s closest neighbor and ally on land, this would be the worst-case scenario for Vietnam. More than ever, Hanoi needs to upgrade exchanges with a European partner.

France is the most likely bet in this regard as well. Paris prepared its “pivot” to Southeast Asia starting in 2013. After French navy frigate Georges Leygues visited Ho Chi Minh City, another frigate, the Vendemiaire, visited Da Nang and last May, the amphibious assault ship Tonnerre docked at Cam Ranh international port, evidence enough that the French are back in the South China Sea. Hollande’s visit will seek to strengthen this strategic cooperation as well.

By Quoc-Thanh Nguyen - The Diplomat - September 7, 2016

Hollande wants further defense deals with Vietnam

French president on state visit to Hanoi calls for increased cooperation, peaceful solution to South China Sea dispute

France's president has called for increased defense cooperation between his country and Vietnam during a state visit to Hanoi on Tuesday.

Without going into specific arrangements, Francois Hollande called for France to help bolster Vietnam’s military capabilities for the purposes of international peacekeeping operations during a speech at Vietnam National University.

Hollande also reaffirmed France’s position that the South China Sea dispute, which involves overlapping maritime claims between China, Vietnam and several others, should be resolved peacefully.

France, which was Vietnam’s colonial master until it was defeated by local communist forces in 1954, has grown closer to Vietnam in recent years as Hanoi seeks to build bridges with its former foes.

The last visit from a French head of state to Vietnam was in 2004 when President Jacques Chirac made a trip.

France has emerged as one of the European Union's primary proponents of increased naval patrols in the South China Sea in response to China’s claim to most of the waters.

Speaking last June at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged EU countries to step up naval patrols in waters claimed by China but recognized as international under United Nations conventions.

"If we want to contain the risk of conflict, we must defend this right, and defend it ourselves," said Le Drian.

World Bulletin News - September 6, 2016

France to support Vietnam’s sovereignty over waters, airspace

France will support Vietnam in the protection of its sovereign waters and airspace, visiting President François Hollande announced on Tuesday.

The French president joined talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi in the morning, as part of his official visit to Vietnam from September 6 to 7.

President Quang considered the visit of his guest to be of great significance in elevating France- Vietnam relations and would contribute to the effective development of the two nations’ strategic partnership.

Focus should be directed at long-term visions to strengthen political and economic ties as well as collaboration in infrastructure, aviation, agriculture, healthcare, and environmental protection among others, the Vietnamese head of state said.

More regular exchanges will be carried out between the two defense ministries while cooperation in aviation and navigation security will also be enhanced.

Regarding regional issues, the two parties reiterated the importance of preserving the freedom of overflight and navigation and the peaceful settlement of all disputes in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

They also stressed full compliance with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Vietnam Sea (DOC) and the establishment of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the maritime area.

Speaking to his host, President Hollande said that France-Vietnam political ties would be strengthened on the basis of mutual trust.

France supports Vietnam’s efforts to defend its sovereign waters and airspace, the French head of state continued.

According to Hollande, Vietnam is a crucial partner in Southeast Asia with over 300,000 French businesses running operations here.

He gave mention to the recent deal between Vietnamese carriers and France’s aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus.

Low-cost private airline VietJet bought 20 planes while national carrier Vietnam Airlines and budget airline Jetstar Pacific bought 10 each in deals worth US$6.5 billion.

Hollande also expressed his hope for more direct flights between the two nations and further cooperation in recycled energy and nuclear power.

During his speech at the Vietnam National University-Hanoi later the same day, the visiting president said that his visit would open up more opportunities for collaboration in education between France and Vietnam.

He also pledged to continue fostering existing ties in the field, aimed at establishing better universities and providing Vietnamese students favorable conditions to study in France.

The French head of state also hoped the French language would be widely taught and learned in the Southeast Asian country.

In the afternoon, President Hollande took a walk around Hanoi’s Old Quarter before meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, and National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

He left the Vietnamese capital for Ho Chi Minh City on the evening of the same day.

Tuoi Tre News - Septembre 9, 2016