SYDNEY/HO CHI MINH CITY -- Australia and Vietnam signed a new strategic partnership Thursday, in an apparent move to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
The partnership agreement, signed by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at Parliament House in Canberra is aimed at deepening ties in defense, security, trade, investment, development and tourism.
"As new strategic partners, Australia and Vietnam have agreed to work together to realize a vision of a secure, open and prosperous region," said Turnbull at the signing event.
The signing comes two days ahead of a special summit in Sydney between Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The meeting is expected to focus on regional security challenges such as the nuclear threat from North Korea and tensions in the South China Sea, as well as efforts to counter terrorism and economic cooperation.
As China spent years building military outposts on contested islands in the South China Sea, beefing up defense cooperation with Asian neighbors has become an important item on the agenda for Australia. Its 2017 Defense White Paper singled out Vietnam as an important strategic partner because of its contributions to regional peace and security among ASEAN member states.
Vietnam, on the other hand, is seen as the most vocal opponent of China's claims to the majority of the South China Sea. Hanoi and Canberra share the same interests.
In a bid to counter China's growing assertiveness, several countries in the Indo-Pacific region are stepping up cooperation. This comes at a time when regional influence of the U.S. under President Donald Trump has weakened considerably.
"Under the Trump administration, countries like Australia, Japan and India have determined that they must play a more proactive role in shaping regional peace and security," said Professor Emeritus Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales.
Two years ago, Hanoi embarked on a mission to improve and make more effective Vietnam's relations with other countries. Vietnam has been seeking deeper cooperation with Japan and India in order to reduce economic dependence on Beijing as well as to fend off China's military expansion in the South China Sea, according to a Vietnamese analyst.
With the strategic partnership agreement, Vietnam also plans to step up economic cooperation with Australia. The two countries agreed to deepen ties in areas such as agriculture, innovation, science and technology.
"These are areas of great strength in our partnership and we will work to advance our cooperation in these fields; just as we work to boost trade and investment and all of the other ties that bring Australia and Vietnam closer together all the time," Turnbull said.
Vietnam is Australia's eighth largest trading partner, while Australia is Vietnam's fifteenth largest. Bilateral trade increased more than 22% from a year earlier to $6.5 billion in 2017. The two countries plan to expand the volume to $10 billion in the next few years.