Vietnam follows China onto world stage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am

If China's deepening involvement across the diplomatic stage has been one of the most striking international developments of the past decade, then, in a smaller way, the emergence of neighbouring Vietnam is also remarkable.

Vietnam's post-war rise reached a new high-water mark this week when the United Nations accepted it as a non-permanent member of the Security Council - a move that gives it a new voice on some of the most urgent issues of the day as well as raising the prospect of the involvement of its military in international peacekeeping operations.

You just have to go back a little over a decade to realise just how far Vietnam has travelled in the world of diplomacy. Compared with its giant neighbour, it started its climb late and from a much more precarious base. As late as 1993, Vietnam's Communist Party leaders were still pariahs, struggling to throw off a crippling US economic embargo that dated back to the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 as well as deal with the collapse of its key patron, the Soviet Union.

The embargo was lifted the next year, helping to fuel percolating international interest in the country, then one of the poorest. By 1995, Vietnam had normalised ties with the US, and had been accepted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - a historic event given the origins of an organisation founded as a bulwark against the spread of communism represented by Hanoi.

Deepening economic, sporting and cultural engagement with the rest of the world has followed. Vietnam sends teams to major sporting events and has joined the World Trade Organisation, a reflection of its role as one of the biggest agricultural exporters of commodities including rice, coffee and pepper.

But that one-time pariah status should not be forgotten, however, as it could play a role in how a rapidly modernising Vietnam shoulders its new role and responsibilities. For even as it courted respectable new friends across the international stage, it had a policy of never forgetting its old mates.

And the dark years as a pariah state saw it make some highly intriguing bedfellows, beyond the usual suspects from the communist sphere, such as Cuba and North Korea. Countries such as Libya and Saddam Hussein's Iraq were always well represented in Hanoi. The Palestine Liberation Organisation has also maintained an embassy.

The question now is how Vietnam will align voting on tough international decisions with its recent friends-to-all policies. It is has, after all, been a vociferous defender of non-interference in internal affairs as it repeatedly stresses peace. It is also expected to become a lightning rod for developing world fears over the pace and excesses of globalisation and the right to self-determination.

Veteran Vietnam watcher Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy is one warning of tricky decisions ahead. Asean, for example, operates by consensus and does not yet require members to take binding votes.

'Vietnam will find that its foreign policy platitudes of making friends with all countries difficult to sustain when it is required to vote on issues,' he told said. 'Sitting on the fence is not an option.'

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was quick to hail the UN's decision but also spoke of 'heavy responsibility'.

As they celebrate this week's vote, Vietnamese officials are describing it as a milestone. Some are couching it in terms of Ho Chi Minh's visions of a unified Vietnam and a significant international player. Its long years of isolation were, the thinking goes, an accident.

It is one more reminder that the story of Vietnam's international emergence is still being written.