Room to Grow in the Singapore-Vietnam Relationship

Singapore and Vietnam are two of the “leading regional partners” in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and their relations have implications for U.S. policy. Vietnamese prime minister Pham Minh Chinh’s official visit to Singapore on February 8–10 was the first among many events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations and 10 years of their strategic partnership. At the official lunch in honor of his counterpart, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted that Singapore and Vietnam have convergent strategic outlooks, enjoy a high level of political trust, and have robust economic cooperation as well as plenty of opportunities to cooperate in new areas.

Although this is true, the two countries’ divergent approaches in dealing with the political crisis in Myanmar and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serve as a reminder that Singapore and Vietnam do have differences in terms of relations with major powers and domestic concerns. While these dissimilarities have not prevented the two states from developing their bilateral relations, they complicate the two sides’ cooperation on regional and international issues. On the bright side, differences mean there is room for the Singapore-Vietnam relationship to grow.

Despite different levels of economic development, Singapore and Vietnam both place importance on regional economic integration and have been proactive in negotiating free trade agreements (FTAs). They are the only two Southeast Asian nations which have FTAs with the European Union. The two countries are also members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the world’s first new-generation FTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (the world’s largest FTA).

In the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both Singapore and Vietnam are committed to promoting ASEAN unity and centrality. The two countries concurred to cooperate toward a common stance to ensure ASEAN’s central role in the regional security architecture and have also firmly supported a rule-based international order by working with like-minded countries, including Japan, India, Australia, and the United States to promote the rule of law.

As a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute, Vietnam promotes its settlement based on international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Although Singapore has no claims in the South China Sea, it is a major trading nation that relies heavily on sea routes. Thus, it has a strong interest in ensuring the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and minimizing conflicts or tensions that might disrupt key trade routes. Like Vietnam, Singapore wants to see a peaceful resolution that upholds international treaties, including UNCLOS.

Despite sharing a commitment to promote ASEAN unity and centrality, Singapore and Vietnam have responded differently to the 2021 military coup in Myanmar. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called the overthrow of the civilian government an “enormous tragic step back” for the country on the path to democracy and strongly condemned the use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators. Given the disappointing progress in the implementation of the ASEAN leaders’ Five-Point Consensus, Singapore tried to defend ASEAN’s credibility by supporting the bloc’s decision to bar the junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from the ASEAN biannual summit in October 2021, stating that it was “difficult but necessary.”

Unlike Singapore, Vietnam considered the coup as Myanmar’s internal affair and initially did not support the decision to exclude the military leadership from the ASEAN summit. Hanoi even tried to temper criticism of the junta at regional and international fora. Vietnam’s behavior, which likely comes from its own regime’s insecurity and economic considerations, undercuts its shared desire to strengthen ASEAN unity and centrality with Singapore.

The two countries have also reacted differently to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which violates international law and the principles of the UN Charter. Singapore said it “cannot accept” the invasion as it sets “a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.” It joined 140 other countries in a UN resolution that called on Russia to immediately end its violations of international law. Singapore also imposed a range of financial sanctions and export control measures against Moscow.

Meanwhile, Vietnam abstained on the above UN resolution and has refrained from singling out Russia by name. It merely stated that it was “deeply concerned” by the conflict and called for “relevant parties” to exercise self-restraint, respect international law, and seek a peaceful resolution through dialogue. Despite its stated commitment to uphold international law, Vietnam did not want to antagonize its largest arms supplier as Russia has provided most of its military equipment and weapons. By not criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hanoi squanders an opportunity to defend the rule-based international order, which in turn could harm its long-term interests in its relations with larger powers.

Vietnam is trying to carve out more strategic space by diversifying its arms suppliers. Since 2015, Vietnam’s new military suppliers include Israel, Belarus, South Korea, the United States, and the Netherlands. Regarding the Myanmar crisis, Vietnam could still uphold the ASEAN principle of noninterference while enhancing the bloc’s unity by taking a tougher stance to ensure the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, to which the Myanmar junta already agreed. If Singapore and Vietnam could adopt similar approaches toward their common strategic outlook, it would not only help the two countries’ relations reach new heights, but also facilitate their cooperation with the United States.

Bich T. Tran is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Bich Tran
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program