That may well be the case at this week's ASEAN gathering when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kicks off official events by signing a new Strategic Partnership with Vietnam on Wednesday as reported by The Australian Financial Review on Monday.

Australia has about a dozen of these agreements now which identify a hierarchy of important interlocutors. But it is still causing some double-takes in the policy-making system that a relatively recent military opponent has now emerged as one of Australia's most constructive partners in ASEAN.

Australian ambassador to Vietnam Craig Chittick obliquely made this point at a KPMG forum last week, noting how the Vietnamese economy was doubling every 15 years while some other governments around the region "are not performing so well".

A formal closer relationship was proposed by former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during a visit in 2015 but not taken up by the Abbott government. The Australian embassy in Hanoi then put the idea back on the government agenda early last year and Vietnam has been waiting to formalise it with a visit to Australia.

Despite an opaque authoritarian central government, Vietnam is proving to be a remarkably open and consistent partner for Australia when it comes to discussing regional issues and its domestic reform objectives.

More assertive China

This is built on a three-legged stool of shared concern about a more assertive China, growing economic complementarities and the coming of age of Australia's second-generation refugee population, many of whom are taking their skills back to their homeland.

In contrast to Australia's struggle to move beyond being perceived as a farm and a quarry in some countries, Ho Chi Minh City consul general Karen Lanyon told the forum: "We have a very good brand in Vietnam, very trusted. We're particularly known for innovative products."

The massive change in both the government-to-government relationship and the business engagement is encapsulated by the way aid-funded bridge building over the Mekong River, which was once the high point in the relationship, has been replaced by technology-sharing joint ventures in areas such as aquaculture.

The fast-growing prawn farming venture Viet-UC, run by refugee returnees, is the classic example of this.

"There will be no more bridge building, our role now is to be a policy partner," says Chittick. The fascinating question now is how far the new bilateral bonds built negotiating issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal can be transferred to Australia's desire for closer institutional links in ASEAN to expand an existing economic agreement and discuss the rise of China.

The Australian Financial Review - March 12, 2018


Shared vision behind Australia's new strategic friendship with Vietnam

When then prime minister Paul Keating visited Vietnam in 1994 - a year before Vietnam normalised relations with the US and joined ASEAN - he came home convinced that the south-east Asian nation would gain strategic weight.

Today, with a highly motivated, entrepreneurial, outward-looking population of about 94 million, Vietnam is emerging as a key regional actor, and an important partner for Australia.

Recognising this, Canberra will sign a strategic partnership next week when Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc arrives to attend the Australia-ASEAN Special Summit.

Vietnam's recent deepening ties with the US, Japan and India presents a conducive factor.

The historic visit to Danang by an American aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, can be seen as a symbol of important change.

The same week, President Tran Dai Quang paid a state visit to India – with whom Vietnam has the highest level of comprehensive strategic partnership, next to China and Russia – to advance co-operation.

Late last year, Hanoi upgraded its relations with Tokyo to extensive strategic partnership, and with the US to enhanced comprehensive partnership.

Hanoi's active engagement with these four powers is not accidental – in fact, of all south-east Asian countries, Vietnam is potentially most eager to see concrete progress on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

Its commitment to maintaining maritime security makes it a vital partner for those who also pledge to ensure the Indo-Pacific remains free and open.

Trusted partners

Nearly 45 years after the last Australian troops left Vietnam, the two countries have every reason to be trusted partners.

Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1973 with the then North Vietnam. Australia became a major destination for Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and '80s and has the second largest Vietnamese population outside of that country – by 2016 accounts, about 294,798 people claim Vietnamese ancestry.

Vietnam is the third largest population in south-east Asia – expected to reach 100 million in 2025; it ranks first in terms of middle-class growth, and second in terms of urban population growth.

Vietnam's strategic position is not only important because of its position on the South China Sea, but also because of access to the Greater Mekong Subregion, which serves as a land bridge connecting the markets of China, south-east Asia and south Asia.

Vietnam is Australia's fastest-growing trade partner in the ASEAN region.

Its exports to Vietnam have grown by 16 per cent annually for the past decade and grew from US$32.3 million in 1990 to US$6 billion ($7.6 billion) in 2017. But Australian foreign direct investment in Vietnam, which totalled US$1.65 billion in 2017, has not made the top 10 investors' list.

Its rapidly growing market is not its only asset. Its ambitious, increasingly highly educated workforce and entrepreneurial society presents opportunities for many Australian sectors - particularly energy, education and agricultural - to increase their investments.

Both Vietnam and Australia are committed to make the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) happen.

The strategic partnership with Vietnam is an early realisation of the goals of the foreign policy white paper released late last year in which Canberra committed to paying more attention to south-east Asia.

In the white paper, Vietnam was described as a partner that was increasingly prosperous, outwardly focused, stable and resilient. The relationship with Vietnam has been on a positive, yet rather gradual, trajectory.

The first formal strategic dialogue between Hanoi and Canberra took place in 1998.

The recent boost happened after 2014 when China dispatched the oil rig HYSY-981 to Vietnamese waters. In 2015, then prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Canberra to enhance ties to the comprehensive partnership that has existed between the nations since 2009.

The decision to elevate it to a strategic partnership was announced during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit which was held in Danang, in November last year.

Peace and stability

But this strategic partnership is more than just an outcome of favourable conditions.

It needs strategic constellations to align. Indeed, it reflects the recognition of mutual strategic importance as well as a sense of growing necessity for co-operation.

Australia and Vietnam share not only a vision of a stable and peaceful region, but also a commitment to guard the stability and peace through support for the rules-based-order and for multilateral institutions.

Australia has welcomed Vietnam's more active role in multilateral frameworks, both regional and global.

Hanoi's contribution to the UN peacekeeping forces has been welcomed in Canberra. Last August, during her visit in the region, Defence Minister Marise Payne offered assistance and training for peacekeeping personnel. She also indicated support for Hanoi's bid for re-election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020-21.

There are fundamental differences in Australia's and Vietnam's political systems, which for a long time remained a complication for closer co-operation.

However, the Australia-Vietnam strategic partnership proves security co-operation is possible despite those differences when actors are responsible stakeholders upholding international law.

The strategic partnership is an important diplomatic reassurance. It opens the way for Australia and Vietnam to work more closely on key areas of common interest, particularly in the maritime domain.

They share an increasingly converging regional security outlook.

They are also complementary in many aspects: Australia's naval capability promises some training opportunities to Hanoi, while Vietnam can offer some of its long-term experience in coping with China.

By Huong Le Thu - The Australian Financial Review - March 12, 2018