Just weeks after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made his first official visit to Hanoi, a diplomatic occasion for boosting trade and security ties, Vietnamese authorities moved to charge Australian citizen Van Kham Chau with terrorism.

Ahead of Morrison’s high profile visit and before the two sides held a 16th human rights dialogue in Canberra, rights lobby group Human Rights Watch urged Australia to raise the case of Chau, who has been detained in Vietnam since January on anti-state charges.

Unlike the United States (US) and European Union (EU), both of which regularly and openly condemn Hanoi’s harsh treatment of activists, Australia takes a more closed door approach. Morrison did not bring up Kham’s predicament, at least not in public, during his visit.

Professor Carlyle Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy suggests Morrison’s high-level visit overshadowed the Australian citizen’s detainment, given it was the first bilateral visit for an Australian leader to Vietnam since 1994. (Successive prime ministers have attended multilateral events hosted by Vietnam).

“Australia’s relations with Vietnam are going quite well with the agreement last year to raise relations to a strategic partnership,” said Thayer. “Vietnam’s arrest and detention of Chau cannot be viewed as politically motivated against the Australian government.”

Australia and Vietnam are increasingly close as middle power supporters of a US-backed “rules-based-order” in the region. Morrison’s visit aimed to shore up ties and transition from friends to “mates” after last year’s upgrade of relations from a comprehensive to strategic partnership.

Australian Joint Task Force 661 Air Commodore Richard Owen is greeted by Vietnamese People’s Army members on arrival of the HMAS Canberra at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, during Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019. Photo: Kylie Gibson/ Australian Department of Defense

Australia increasingly sees Vietnam as a security partner in the region, including in maintaining freedom of navigation vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea.

Before leaving for Hanoi, Morrison said his aim was to “extend, strengthen and further build the alliances, the relationships that exist across the Indo-Pacific of free independent sovereign nations simply seeking to be themselves in this part of the world.”

Still, Morrison didn’t mention China by name when he referred to regional countries who face “coercion” in sea areas. “If we allow the sovereignty or independence of any of our neighbors to suffer coercion then we are all diminished,” he said. “We share a deep interest in the stability and prosperity of our region.”

Australia and Vietnam have a long history of defense cooperation, with Vietnamese officers training at Duntroon since the 1990s and Australia providing assistance to Vietnamese peacekeeping forces on United Nations missions. The upgrade in ties last year promised even more military cooperation, including through multilateral joint exercises.

That includes the Australia-led Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercises, now in their third year, which see Australia’s military cooperate with armed forces in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. This year Australia’s three arms of defense ­– navy, air force, and army – cruised across the region for three months on a fleet of Australian naval ships for various joint activities.

There has been talk since last year that Vietnam, a communist-run one-party state, could also soon join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, between the US, India, Japan and Australia – all like-minded democracies.

That Vietnam’s different political system and its total aversion to becoming a multi-party democracy is not a real hurdle to it joining the Quad is a sign that real politick considerations are taking precedence in building a coalition in defense of a “rules-based-order.”

A US-led joint naval operation in the South China Sea in November 2018. Photo: US Navy

Vietnam, on the other hand, needs all of the security allies it can muster as China increasingly challenges areas it claims in the South China Sea.

While not overtly in defense of Vietnam’s positions, France and the United Kingdom recently staged “freedom of navigation” patrols through the South China Sea as a challenge to China’s increasing encroachment into the area. Australia has not yet committed to such an exercise, which would no doubt be welcomed in Hanoi.

China is meanwhile pressing forward vis-à-vis Vietnam in the contested maritime area. In July, China moved an oil exploration rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which Beijing maintains falls within its nine-dash line map despite The Hague ruling otherwise in July 2016.

Two months later, The Haiyang Dizhi 8 is still there in a block being explored at Vietnam’s invitation by Russia’s Rosneft at the gas-rich Vanguard Bank. The stand-off has seen Chinese militia ships go head-to-head with Vietnam’s coast guard, with neither side budging.

It marks the second time China has bid to thwart Vietnam’s energy ambitions in contested waters, the first causing Spain’s Repsol to abandon two blocks Hanoi had given it concessions to explore.

Australia has no commercial interest in Vietnam’s energy sector, nor is it apparent that there are any Australian oil companies interested in partnering with state-run PetroVietnam to explore in Hanoi’s claimed waters. That’s particularly true after Australia’s second largest oil company, Santos, spun off its Southeast Asian assets last year in a cost-cutting move.

A Vietnamese soldier stands watch overlooking the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

But China’s push into the region, including a drive to goad rival claimant nations to partner only with Chinese state companies in developing the sea’s resources, will concern Australia as Beijing comes to dominate a waterway through which much of its trade travels.

Morrison was careful to manage Australia’s fractious relationship with China by not mentioning it by name while in Vietnam. That may have disappointed his Vietnamese hosts, some analysts suggest.

“Vietnam hoped for stronger language from Australia during Morrison’s visit,” the Australian Strategic Policy’s Institute’s Huong Le Thu wrote, noting in comparison the language of the recent Australia–Japan–US strategic dialogue signed by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne was more forceful.

“It was a deliberate effort (by Morrison) not to name China, which seems odd given both the timing of the trip and Australia’s vocal defense of the rules-based order,” she wrote.

Canberra’s refusal to go head-to-head with China is a reflection of the fact that China remains its largest trade partner. Both Australia and Vietnam have grown closer to China through trade but a recent shift in geo-strategic winds has put a brake on those deepening ties.

Vietnam now faces not only Chinese interference and threats in its nearby waters but has also watched as Beijing co-opts its “traditional friends” in neighboring Cambodia and Laos through rich aid and development schemes.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, August 23, 2019

Recent reports that China has secured a 30-year exclusive lease to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base opening on the Gulf of Thailand will have sent alarm bells ringing in Hanoi as well as Canberra as Beijing opens a strategic southern flank in the South China Sea disputes.

Australia, too, is losing out to Chinese largesse in its traditional Pacific sphere of influence. That includes in close-to-home Timor Leste, where China may build a liquified natural gas (LNG) plant to kick-start the tiny new nation’s export industries.

Morrison’s hesitance to name China during his visit to Vietnam made certain real politick sense. But at a time when Vietnam’s “more friends, fewer enemies” diplomacy is in hyperdrive, many felt Australia’s leader could have delivered a stronger message, including in a public call for Chau’s freedom.