Rising tensions in the South China Sea are set to feature when Scott Morrison meets his Vietnamese counterpart during his visit to the southeast Asian nation.
Mr Morrison will be the first Australian prime minister to make a stand-alone trip to Vietnam since 1994 when he arrives in Hanoi on Thursday.
He is expected to sit down with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc for a one-on-one meeting on Friday.
Vietnam expert and UNSW Canberra emeritus professor Carl Thayer told AAP the South China Sea would be discussed.
But he believes any official statement on the issue will be about upholding international law and calling out bullying and coercion without naming China.
“I don’t think Vietnam will mind that restraint either because they’re very shy about being seen as part of a coalition permanently against China,” Professor Thayer said.
The Australian prime minister’s visit comes at a time of escalating tensions between Vietnam and China in the Vanguard Bank, in the southern part of the sea.
Chinese oil survey vessels and its escorts have returned to Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in recent days, with the US accusing its rival of bullying.
Professor Thayer said Vietnam had also “upped the ante” by putting a military ship in the area.
“The ball is in China’s court and Morrison’s going to be in Hanoi in the centre of it,” he said.
He said China flexing its muscles to intimidate other nations couldn’t be ruled out.
“What happens if China provokes an incident as a way of warning off Australia and Vietnam simultaneously?”
Vietnam will next year chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and take a non-permanent place on the UN Security Council.
“Vietnam will really be happy because Australia will be providing advice and feedback privately through diplomatic channels,” Professor Thayer said.
In defence, maritime co-operation and cyber security could be areas for advancement.
Co-operation in peacekeeping is another area expected to be on the agenda after Australia’s air force helped deploy Vietnamese resources to South Sudan for a mission last year.
Professor Thayer said Australia would continue to look at Vietnamese requests, with efforts extending to combat engineers being sent to the war-torn African nation earlier in the year.
“It might lead to expansion beyond that in Africa and I’m sure Australia would support it,” he said.
Mr Morrison has talked up boosting trade and economic opportunities between the countries, with two business forums the first cab off the rank when he lands in Hanoi.
“Vietnam is one of the region’s economic success stories over the last decade and reflects the significant steps it has taken to liberalise its economy,” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
“Our relationship with Vietnam has never been stronger.”
Australia has free-trade partnerships with Vietnam through the ASEAN-Australian-New Zealand agreement and the 11-country Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Negotiations over the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are also ongoing.
Two-way trade between Australia and Vietnam is at record levels, hitting $14.5 billion in 2018 and doubling since 2012.
“The trade relationship is going gangbusters,” Professor Thayer said.
Australian Associated Press