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Official Gazette

Friday, August 14, 2020

Strategic partnership: a framework of foreign relations in the age of globalization

Updated: 10:28’ - 01/10/2013

Tran Viet Thai[1]

Since the end of the Cold War, international relations have witnessed great and profound changes. The world conjuncture has shifted to a multipolar order with many centers of power. Peace, cooperation and development have become a major tendency in the world. The trend of globalization, multilateralization and diversification of foreign relations and international integration has become popular. The demand for diversification of foreign relations, building a new-type relationship of cooperation suitable to the new circumstance and the capability of each subject in international relations has become an objective and inevitable tendency.

A new concept

At present, there has not yet appeared a common concept of the framework, connotation, purpose and significance of strategic partnership. With their national interests in mind, the subjects of international relations seek to establish and implement strategic partnerships suitable to their national capabilities and international circumstances, without limiting themselves in a rigid framework of relations. Normally, only when nations maintain the friendly and cooperative relations at a certain degree shall they take into account the building and establishment of strategic partnerships.

Strategic partnership is, in essence, a form of international relations, reflecting the aspirations of the subjects when they participate in this framework of relationship. It demonstrates a commitment higher than the normal bilateral relationship but not yet to the extent of forming a military alliance. In other words, strategic partnership is also a gauge measuring the binding and intertwinement of interests between subjects of international relationship, which go beyond the extent of friendship and cooperation but not to the extent of legal binding. Generally, strategic partnerships in the world are characterized with the following four fundamental features:

First, there exists between them a framework of relationship with broad connotations of cooperation, depending on the political will and cooperation wishes of the parties concerned, which are officialized via high-level statements or communiqués.

Second, there exist operating mechanisms through regular and extraordinary meetings, visits, etc., particularly at high levels, to build the strategic confidence and enhance friendship and comprehensive cooperation.

Third, formerly, when building and deploying their strategic partnerships, subjects often laid stress on political, security and defense cooperation. Yet, now, the tendency to select one or several narrow sectors or to diversify connotations for building a strategic partnership has become more and more common, as long as it benefits both parties and does not lead to a military alliance.

Fourth, there is a deeper and closer economic cooperation, creating a clear distinction between cooperation and partnership and creating a relatively sustainable association and intertwinement of interests within a given period of time.

In addition, a strategic partnership must involve exchange and cooperation at different levels and among different sectors and localities. A strategic partnership aims for basic and long-term national interests among the involved parties. It is not immutable but flexible. It develops and varies, depending on each partner, time, sector and way of application by each subject.

World reality

Strategic partnerships in the world are extremely diverse in reality, of which the most common is the relationship of strategic partners between countries, particularly between major ones. Additionally, there has appeared a tendency of building “asymmetric” partnerships such as those between a nation and an international organization, like between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2003 and between China and the European Union (EU) in 2003; between a military alliance bloc and an international organization or a nation such as between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU in 2010, between NATO and Russia in 2010,...; between an international organization and a region or other international organization such as between the EU and Africa in 2007; between the EU and the Latin American and Caribbean region in 1996; or even between continents such as the New Asia and Africa Strategic Partnership (NAASP).

China has the largest number of strategic partnerships in the world with more than 50 partners, including such small countries as Laos, Cambodia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan, three international organizations (EU, ASEAN and African Union). It is followed by Russia with more than 30 strategic partners and equivalent; the United States with 24 strategic partners and equivalent, including nine strategic partners, three comprehensive partners, two special relationships with the United Kingdom and Israel, two non-NATO allies and eight other allies; France with 13 strategic partners; the United Kingdom and India with 12 allies and strategic partnerships each; the EU and Mexico with 10 strategic partners each; Germany and Indonesia with nine strategic partners each; Poland with six strategic partners...[2]

Strategic partnerships are flexibly named. Many relationships are strategic in essence, but not named strategic partnerships by the parties involved, such as the relationship between the United States and Singapore, the relationship between the United States and Indonesia, etc. Even more, a strategic partnership can be established between two nations involved in strategic competition such as between Russia and China, China and Japan, and China and India.

Strategic partnerships can be classified into different levels, based mainly on the extent of cooperation and mutual trust. The highest level is comprehensive strategic partnership or comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, involving two or more parties which determine to bind their interests together for a long term, support each other and promote their comprehensive and profound cooperation in all sectors for their mutual benefits. At the same time, the parties involved also build their mutual trust at strategic level. A lower level of strategic partnership is that in a narrow sector or for a given specific purpose, for instance, strategic partnerships for peace or for cooperation and development, etc. Strategic partnerships of this type have quickly increased in number. The lowest level is comprehensive partnership, where one or a number of aspects of the relationship between the involved parties has/have reached the strategic level, but not even among various aspects of cooperation. Because their mutual trust is not yet sufficient or the time for their strategic partnership is not ripe, the parties opt to build a framework of comprehensive partnership with the meaning that they lay stress on cooperation, while further consolidating their mutual trust and together looking forward to the future. Some countries also classify partnerships into essential partnership, important partnership, key partnership, natural partnership, among others.

Building of Vietnam’s strategic partnerships

In furtherance of its foreign policy of independence, sovereignty, multilateralization and diversification of foreign relations and deepening of international relations, Vietnam has, since 2001, established a strategic partnership with Russia, which was raised to a comprehensive strategic partnership in July 2012; a strategic partnership with India (in 2007); a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with China (in 2008), with Japan and the Republic of Korea (in 2009), with the United Kingdom (in 2010), with Germany (2011), and with Italy, Indonesia and Thailand (in 2013).

At a lower level, Vietnam has established a strategic partnership in the sector of climate change and sea level rise with the Netherlands (in 2010) and a strategic partnership in the sector of climate change, environment, energy and green growth with Denmark.

Lately, during President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to the United States of America in July 2013, Vietnam and the United States have formed a comprehensive partnership, marking a new development of the relationship between the two countries.

In short, in addition to two special partnerships with Laos and Cambodia and the traditional relationship of friendship and multi-sided cooperation with Cuba, Vietnam has so far established the full strategic partnerships with 11 countries and two restricted strategic partnerships with the Netherlands and Denmark, and a number of comprehensive partners such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and France.

Panoramically, through the establishment of strategic partnerships with Vietnam, the strategic partners have, at different extents, positively contributed to the bilateral relations as well to Vietnam’s diplomatic chessboard. They have assisted Vietnam in:

(i) Building and consolidating the strategic confidence between Vietnam and the partners, especially when the strategic partnership framework has opened up various important channels of dialogue, particularly at the strategic level and in policy implementation, advancing the relationships and handling differences;

(ii) Making Vietnam’s foreign relations gradually stable, deepened and sustainable while Vietnam firmly maintains its foreign policy of independence, sovereignty, multilateralization and diversification of relations and proactive international integration; and,

(iii) Increasing the quantity as well as quality of international cooperation projects and mechanisms, thus incrementally contributing to raising Vietnam’s position in the region and the world.

The strategic partnerships have step by step satisfied Vietnam’s interests in various aspects. For instance, in its strategic partnership with Russia, Vietnam has implemented various long-term cooperation projects of strategic nature in energy, particularly petroleum and nuclear energy, defense and security. With Japan, the two sides have implemented many important infrastructure and transport projects. Japan has assisted Vietnam in developing the supporting industry and building nuclear power plant No. 2. The strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea has quickly developed. The strategic partners of the Netherlands and Denmark have helped Vietnam with various specific projects in response to climate change, seawater intrusion in the Mekong River delta and afforestation.

The establishment of strategic partnerships also acts as a lever, helping consolidate the conjuncture of multilateralization and diversification of Vietnam’s foreign relations and heighten Vietnam’s position in the international arena, without causing side-effects and letting the country get stuck between major countries.

Noteworthy issues in the establishment and implementation of strategic partnerships

Besides the advantages mentioned above, the establishment of strategic partnerships also reveals some limitations. A number of cooperation issues have not yet been specified and actively implemented. For some partners, the cooperation issues have not been commensurate with the magnitude of their relations with Vietnam. Though intertwined interests have been created, the ties between Vietnam and partners have not yet been actually sustainable, which need to be further strengthened.

Moreover, in the process of establishment of strategic partnerships and implementation of strategic partnership agreements, due attention has not yet been paid to the dissemination of public information. So, breakthrough results have not yet been achieved as desired and the involvement of ministries, sectors, enterprises as well as localities has not been truly active.

Practical experiences in the establishment of strategic partnerships in recent years show that strategic partnerships should not be established at any cost and caution is necessary, and the following issues should be properly addressed:

First, strategic partnerships must well serve the national interests. Vietnam’s national interests are to firmly defend its independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity; to protect the political regime and firmly maintain the environment of peace and stability, make full use of favorable international conditions to serve the cause of national industrialization and modernization while contributing to heightening Vietnam’s prestige and position in the international arena.

Second, the dialectic relationship between establishment and implementation of strategic partnerships, which are two different but closely interrelated processes. The selection of partners and the search for consensus on connotations for establishment of strategic partnerships is a difficult and long process, requiring the agreement as well as consensus on perception, time, objectives,... from both sides. The establishment of a strategic partnership is just the initial step, which is followed by the implementation process certainly full of hardships and challenges, which should be dealt with persistently and calmly on the basis of firmly grasping the national interests.

Third, importance should be attached to quality and the quantity-quality relationship should be handled appropriately. The general trend in the world is that importance is attached to the quality and efficiency of cooperative partnership, though there exists no criterion on the necessary number of strategic partnerships for a nation. It is important that each country should be well aware of its capability, taking efficiency as a primary criterion for every specific cooperation project.

Realities in international relations show that there always exists a big gap between desire and reality. In the world, many strategic partnerships have failed to satisfy the criteria, connotations as well as expectations of strategic partnership. For example, the United States has established a strategic partnership with Georgia, which is only a very small partner of the United States; or the United States-India strategic partnership, where the political and security cooperation between the two countries is limited while their economic and commercial ties have strongly developed, with the bilateral trade value surpassing USD 60 billion in 2012.

In a nutshell, international relations have changed fast toward further diversification and complication. In the context of globalization and increasing interdependence, Vietnam’s efforts in establishing strategic partnerships with a number of countries conform to the development trend of the time. This is a long process, which is extremely necessary for deepening Vietnam’s relations of friendship and cooperation with its partners around the world. Initially, the strategic partnerships of Vietnam have created the frameworks of relationship for both parties to build and develop. Importance should also be attached to major partners which are vital to the security and development of Vietnam, for advancing the relationships. While the role and significance of military alliances are on the decline, strategic partnership is emerging as a multipurpose and sharp instrument of foreign policies and international relations which countries like Vietnam should take full advantage of.-

[1]  Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

[2]  Different ways of calculation yield different figures. The data cited in this paragraph had been calculated by August 30, 2013, and summed up by the author himself from the websites of the U.S. Department State, the Foreign Ministries of China, Great Britain, Russia, France, India, Germany, Israel, Indonesia, Mexico and Poland, and some other reference documents.


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