Most Australian troops were withdrawn from the Republic of Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968 — a decision made by former Liberal prime minister John Gorton’s government. The final Australian combat role ended in 1971 under former Liberal prime minister William McMahon’s government. But with electoral success in 1972, Labor was set to make changes to Australia’s Vietnam policy.
Whitlam’s government withdrew Australia’s remaining military advisers from the Republic of Vietnam and ended military conscription. Whitlam also distanced Australia from US Vietnam policy, establishing the basis for a new relationship with Vietnam.
Yet soon after the Labor government took office, the United States escalated its military involvement in Vietnam.
Tensions emerged between former US president Richard Nixon’s administration and Whitlam’s government as Australia distanced itself from US policy. The United States hoped that its escalating military involvement would bring the DRV back to the negotiating table after peace talks, which began following the Tet Offensive in early 1968, were suspended in. While the United States concluded the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 and then withdrew from the war, neither Vietnamese side observed the ceasefire. The war ended two years later on 30 April 1975 with the fall of Saigon.
Whitlam’s government did not withdraw its recognition of the Republic of Vietnam when it recognised the DRV. Australia maintained official relations with both the Hanoi and Saigon governments for over two years, effectively having a ‘two Vietnams’ policy. Reunification of Vietnam, forming the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, occurred in 1976. While not in government at this point, Whitlam prepared the way for Australia and Vietnam to move away from the destructive environment of war.
The exodus of refugees from Vietnam played a role in Australia–Vietnam relations. While Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser (1975–1983) welcomed the new arrivals, Whitlam did not. Whitlam saw the refugees as anti-communist and likely anti-Labor. Their arrival in Australia was seen as likely to complicate the development of a relationship prioritising foreign policy and economic interests. This has played out to some extent. The Vietnamese diaspora in Australia has advocated for human rights issues being an important part of Australia–Vietnam relations.
In 2023, Whitlam’s vision of Australia–Vietnam relations being anchored in mutual interests has been realised — even if he did not foresee the development of a large Vietnamese–Australian community. In geopolitical terms, Vietnam is important to Australia because of its membership of ASEAN — an organisation which Australia sees as an important regional interlocutor — and its position in relation to China. Vietnam has hedged its relations with China to protect its independence. Cooperative relations with Australia are useful for Vietnam. These ties are helpful to Australia, too, given Australia’s strategy of balancing against China.
Vietnam is a major economy in Southeast Asia. While Whitlam might have foreseen that Australia’s diplomatic engagement with Vietnam would facilitate trade and investment opportunities, he might not have expected the pace with which Vietnam has emerged as one of Asia’s new economic ‘tigers’. Vietnam has reached middle-income status. Vietnam is becoming a major manufacturing hub in the region due to the availability of cheap labour. In 2021, Vietnam ranked as Australia’s ninth largest source of imports and 19th largest export destination. Australian investment in Vietnam has also expanded — Australia was the 19th largest foreign investor in Vietnam in 2021.
Australian aid to Vietnam further strengthens the bilateral relationship — the Cao Lanh Bridge over the Mekong River, which opened in 2018, was a major practical and symbolic achievement of Australian aid to Vietnam. The OECD lists Vietnam as the eighth largest recipient of Australian development assistance.
Vietnam and Australia are also among the signatories to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. Both countries share a commitment to trade liberalisation.
Australian tourism to Vietnam has enhanced people-to-people links between the two countries. Vietnam is the fifth largest source of international students in Australia. Vietnam is also a popular destination for Australian New Colombo Plan students and some Australian universities have established campuses in Vietnam.
In 2022, the governments of Australia and Vietnam announced their intention to elevate their relationship to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ — an advance on the ‘strategic partnership’ agreed to in 2018. Australian and Vietnamese leaders’ regular bilateral visits and interactions underscore the increasing importance of the relationship.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has assisted the Vietnamese peacekeeping contingent in South Sudan. The ADF has provided training and equipment and supported the transport of the contingent from Vietnam to South Sudan.
In 50 years, Vietnam has moved from a ‘battlefield into a marketplace’. But while the ‘marketplace’ and people-to-people links provide solid ballast for the relationship between Australia and Vietnam, there is remarkable congruence in the contemporary geopolitical perspectives of the two countries. This goes beyond anything Whitlam would have envisaged.
Derek McDougall is Professorial Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.