Vietnam today—German frigate Bayern arrived at Ho Chi Minh City on January 6 for a four-day visit. German warships have not visited the Southeast Asian nation since diplomatic relations were established in 1975, making this the first time a German warship has done so. The frigate’s seven-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific includes visits to Vietnam, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, Australia, Guam, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and India.
Using the Bayern “underlines the security component of the Indo-Pacific Guidelines,” according to a news release from Germany’s Embassy in Hanoi, which was issued in September 2020 in response to similar moves taken by other European governments. As the German ambassador was mentioned in the communiqué, the frigate’s visit was a statement of friendship between Germany and Vietnam.
Nguyen Tan Dung, a former Vietnamese prime minister, and Angela Merkel, a former German chancellor, signed a proclamation in Hanoi in 2011 that elevated their “friendship connection” to a “strategic partnership.” Strategic Action Plan (SAP) outlined five areas of collaboration to be highlighted in the declaration. For example, there was a focus on strategic political-diplomatic cooperation and cooperation in the field of trade and investment.
Both sides decided to form a Strategic Steering Group (SSG) co-chaired by Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister and Germany’s state secretary of foreign affairs to develop strategic cooperation. As part of the political talks between the two foreign affairs ministries, this committee was intended to convene regularly to monitor SAP implementation. Defense and security cooperation was only listed as a secondary issue in the strategic alliance between the two countries, which is remarkable.
Vietnam Today: Strategic Partnership
When a “strategic partnership” is formed between Vietnam today and another country, it is usually the culmination of a “comprehensive relationship” that encompasses collaboration in all sectors across the board. This collaboration was developed without first establishing an entire relationship between Vietnam today and Germany.
When the strategic alliance between the two countries was established, defense and security cooperation was not a priority. The scenario in the South China Sea and international politics in the Indo-Pacific a decade ago is likewise similar to what’s happening now. Aside from its actions in the South China Sea, China’s “rise” during this period has been linked to its military buildup and ambitions to reshape the world order under its terms, as well as disagreements over maritime sovereignty with Vietnam and the United States. President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” and “national rejuvenation” campaign, including the Belt and Road Initiative, have caused Vietnam and Germany to reexamine their regional defense and security strategies.
Previously, Vietnam’s national defense policy focused on just three principles: “no joining military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no granting other countries permission to set up military bases or use its territory for military activities against other countries, and no using force or threatening to use power in international relations. However, this approach does not limit Vietnam’s cooperation with other countries, especially those with which it has strategic and comprehensive alliances aimed at improving its defense capabilities, as I argued recently in an interview with Radio France International. Vietnam today has shifted its national defense doctrine in reaction to China’s continued expansion into the Vietnamese seas and aggressive moves elsewhere in the South China Sea.
Vietnam Today: Open Maritime Lanes Critical to Global Economy
According to policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, open maritime lanes between the Indian and Pacific oceans and the South China Sea are critical to the global economy and Germany and the EU. If Europe participates in the growth dynamics of Asia and the Indo-Pacific, even though Germany is not a regional country, it has a stake in the EU’s engagement. Consequently, it sees itself as a regional actor and partner who can help shape regional norms and structures while upholding global standards.
Note Verbale to United Nations in September 2020 by Germany, France, and the United Kingdom on international law and the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) about maritime claims in the South China Sea was submitted by the three countries. China’s claim to the South China Sea’s ancient seas has been rejected by the three countries involved in the Philippines-China arbitration case in 2016.
Press release from the German Embassy in Hanoi stated that the frigate Bayern’s duty was to protect and safeguard the Indo-rules-based Pacific order. UNCLOS, which guarantees freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and the right to innocent passage through coastal waters, is made all the more critical by this ship’s journey across the South China Sea. Germany has long supported Vietnam’s position to peacefully resolve conflicts in the South China Sea and implement an international rules-based order.
While progress has been modest, Vietnam today and Germany’s shared interests in military and security have provided a clear impetus for expanding their strategic partnership.
This position was established in Berlin, while Germany’s permanent resident defense attaché was Bangkok. Vietnam today sent military personnel to Germany for training after a memorandum of understanding was signed during the first-ever visit by a Vietnamese minister to the German ministry of defense. Since then, Vietnamese army commanders have been attending German military bases for training courses every year.
Military cooperation between Vietnam and Germany has grown to include military health and United Nations peacekeeping activities since 2011. Both of Vietnam’s deputy defense ministers visited Berlin in 2012. The German state secretary of defense made a trip to Vietnam in 2016 to discuss military cooperation. In 2019, the appointment of Germany’s first permanent resident defense attaché to Hanoi was of particular notice, which signals potential scope for defense collaboration.
The relationship has had its share of bumps in the road. When Germany accused Vietnam’s secret services of kidnapping Vietnamese national Trinh Xuan Thanh in Berlin, it sparked an international diplomatic row in 2017. Thanh was a high-profile target in an anti-corruption drive undertaken by the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party. However, he moved overseas to avoid punishment.
Vietnam Today: Advocacy for Alliance Reforms
German and Vietnamese authorities, however, have not let human rights concerns stop them from advocating for reforms to the strategic alliance. There have so far been six meetings of the Vietnam-Germany Strategic Partnership Group (SSG). However, no legal defense and security cooperation discussions until the fifth and sixth meetings, respectively. Defense and security cooperation as a new bilateral priority in the 2019-2022 SAP.
Bayern’s visit to Ho Chi Minh City in the first days of 2022 was a clear signal of more vital defense collaboration between Vietnam and Germany, particularly in the naval arena. ‘ German-Vietnamese relations will be upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in three years, when the two nations mark the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, because they are the two major trading partners in the EU and ASEAN for Germany and Vietnam, respectively.