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Vietnam: Then and Now

Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to 2014 Vietnam Update: Connected and Disconnected in Vietnam, ANU, Canberra, Monday 1 December 2014

It is a pleasure and privilege to be here with you to open this 2014 Vietnam Update, the twentieth of its kind to be held since I launched the first in 1990, wearing my then hat as Australia’s Foreign Minister.  Our convenor Dr Philip Taylor tells me that this is now the world’s longest running and most influential conference series on Vietnam, and wearing my current hat as ANU Chancellor, I am happy to bask in some of his justifiable pride. The Vietnam Update series is a classic example of what this University does so well -- producing and sponsoring research which not only meets the highest academic standards but is at the cutting edge of policy debate. The deep impact that the Update’s findings have had on the programs of numerous governments and organisations in their development cooperation with Vietnam is a particular source of pride to us all.

My own first direct contact with Vietnam long predated the start of this conference series. In 1968, on my way from Australia to study in England, out of some crazy spirit of adventure, I found myself in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. There was no tourist infrastructure whatever, even for a downmarket backpacker. I hitched a ride into the city and finally found a cheap hotel, where it became immediately clear from the condition of my room that it had recently had a lot of short-time occupants with not much cleaning in between. As I was wondering what had got myself into, I heard a commotion on the landing outside. Opening the door I confronted the dreadful sight of a drunken GI beating a young Vietnamese woman with a broom as she fled screaming downstairs.

The whole sickening cameo – the squalor of the place combined with the brutality of the conduct – seemed to me to summarise in an instant, in a way that I’d never fully grasped in my previous years of university campus demonstrating, everything that was wrong about that war: not least the inability of the West to comprehend that it was much more about a struggle for human dignity than anything to do with ideology or great power realpolitik. It made me deeply reluctant to accept that any great power had the right to lord it over anyone else, outside the framework of a UN rule-based international order. In this way, my initial contact with Vietnam and its people was one of a handful of moments that profoundly shaped the outlook I brought to my later roles both in government and with global NGOs.

Of course, I couldn’t have predicted at that time the intertwining of destinies that came about with the migration of so many thousands of Vietnamese refugees to Australian shores at the end of the War, who have been accompanying and enriching the lives of all of us in the Australian community ever since – in my case, not least, by marrying into my family and drilling my teeth!

Nor could I have imagined during that first visit that twenty years later, in one of my first trips as foreign minister in 1988, I had the honour of placing the first direct phone call from Hanoi to Australia My conversation, with the Australian Communications Minister Bob Brown, was broadcast over a loud-speaker to an assembled throng of dignitaries, and I’m not quite sure what they made of the exchange, which in its entirely went something like this. Me:  “How is the revolution going in the People’s Republic of Australia? Do the people still love us, comrade?” Bob: ”The revolution is going very well indeed, comrade. And the people are happy that you are in Vietnam.”  I don’t think that Greg Sheridan, to this day, has ever forgiven me.

Nor could I or anyone else have imagined back in 1968  I would be, just over two decades later in 1989, engaged in head-to-head – and  sometimes toe-to-toe – negotiations with the Vietnamese leadership to try to resolve what had become by then the region’s longest running sore, the Cambodian conflict. There were a legion of other players in those negotiations – the Cambodian factions, the Indonesians and other ASEANs, the Americans, Chinese, Russians and French – but I will always remember with particular affection my counterpart Nguyen Co Thach, the very first senior official with whom we tested out the Australian peace plan, who matched immense bloody-mindedness with immense charm, and at end of the day great diplomatic dexterity.

So this was the context in which I came to the ANU in 1990 to open the first of these conferences.  The country and its people about which we had been so unfathomably ignorant when we rushed into waging war, were gradually becoming familiar to us, and we to them. But we both wanted and needed to know more about each other, and we wanted to use that knowledge to help advance Vietnam’s development and accelerate its integration into the wider regional and international community, out of the Cold War cul-de-sac in which it had so long been stuck.  

In that 1990 address, I argued that it was not only possible, but likely, that Vietnam was on the verge of a whole new era in its dealings with the Asia-Pacific region and with Australia. The political and security factors that had inhibited its capacity to deal normally with its regional neighbours had finally improved – allowing the country to focus on building economic prosperity from what was a very low base. And although there have been                                            plenty of bumps and setbacks along the way – with not the least of Vietnam’s burdens being an anachronistic one-party political system that remains doggedly resistant to change to this day – what we have in front of us is a fundamentally good news story.

In 1990, Vietnam’s per capita GDP was $US 951; now it is $US 3,750 (PPP) and rising – according the country its long sought-after middle income status. It is now the world’s 41st largest economy, up from 89th place 25 years ago, and can lay claim to having the fastest growing middle-class in the South East Asian region. This burgeoning middle class has seen poverty levels drop from 58 per cent in 1990 to the current rate of around 17 per cent – all the while ensuring that its wealth is the second most evenly spread in ASEAN. These impressive statistics underline the transition in the Vietnamese economy from agrarian to industrialised and from centrally planned to market based.

Vietnam’s emergence from the Cold War, which was positively icy from Hanoi’s point of view during the 1980s – marks an equally impressive achievement. In 1990 Vietnam was still isolated within the international community after its invasion of Cambodia in 1978, notwithstanding that this had driven the genocidal Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh. Fast-forward to the present, and Vietnam is member of ASEAN, APEC and the WTO and an active and committed contributor in many other intergovernmental bodies, including as a member of the UN Security Council in 2008-09. This is all part of an explicit policy toward comprehensive international integration and gives real force to the Politburo’s aim, expressed in a 1988 Resolution, to have ‘more friends and fewer enemies.’

Of course, as you are all no doubt aware, it has not all been plain sailing for Vietnam. The lack of political reform is all the more noticeable for its contrast with the economic progress I have just described. This has resulted in an atmosphere of repression and concerns over human rights abuses that are at odds with Vietnam’s increasingly liberal and internationalist persona.

Likewise, in foreign affairs, Hanoi is – not for the first time in its history – in a fractious relationship with China, with the current acute stress point being the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Seas. It is edging closer to a general strategic partnership with the US and other non-communist ASEANs, but the notional ideological brotherhood with China is still inducing a degree of schizophrenia. Hanoi has so far proven reasonably adroit at steering a middle course between China and its burgeoning relationship with the US, strongly supporting a united ASEAN front on the territorial issues and avoiding the  somewhat more confrontational path chosen by the Philippines with its international court action. But  the anti-China riots that broke out in May are evidence of the simmering nationalist sentiment that exists for many Vietnamese, and it will not be easy to keep bilateral relations with China as stable as they need to be engender ongoing economic growth and prosperity.

Vietnam’s bilateral relationship with Australia has been a happier one, bearing out my forecast in 1990 that it would normalise in the 1990s to align with the excellent relations that we had by then established with the majority of other South East Asian nations. This has certainly proven to be the case. Australian aid to Vietnam, which stood at about $AU 17 million in the 1989/90 financial year is estimated to reach $AU 141 million this financial year. In addition, Vietnam currently ranks fourth as a source country of international students for Australia while Australians born in Vietnam represent the fifth largest migrant community in Australia. These are truly numbers to be proud of and are indicative of the close relationships that have been forged between our two countries and peoples since the original influx of Vietnamese refugees in the years after the War.

You will all no doubt have much to say on Vietnam’s future -- politically, economically, socially and internationally, over the next two days – and views are bound to differ on what that future will hold. Incurable optimist that I am, I fully expect that we will continue to witness the rise and rise of Vietnam in the two decades ahead,  just as we have in the two decades past. And maybe on the 40th Update in this series you can wheel me in, in my 90 year old dotage, to test once again whether that optimism was justified.