National

Why PM Morrison’s trip to Vietnam matters

By AAP Newswire

Scott Morrison's visit to Vietnam marks an important strengthening of diplomatic ties as tensions flare in a crucial South China Sea flashpoint.

The prime minister's visit - the first Australian leader to make an official bilateral trip for a quarter of a century - is expected to weigh heavily on trade and economic opportunities.

But there are also some testing diplomatic and strategic matters which need attention.

A Chinese oil exploration vessel and its escorts have made waves by entering Vietnamese waters near the Vanguard Bank, in the South China Sea's south.

There could be pressure for Australia to make a strong statement after the US condemned China's conduct as bullying and coercion.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Huong Le Thu sees no reason why Australia can't address the issue, even if the tone isn't as sharp as the US state department.

"What Vietnam would expect the international community - and Australia being one of the key actors in this - is to speak up and to speak directly about the issues, like the US did," she told AAP.

UNSW Canberra emeritus professor Carl Thayer doesn't expect Australia to fully go down the US route.

"I don't think Vietnam will mind that restraint either because they're very shy about being seen as part of a coalition permanently against China," he told AAP.

Dr Le Thu said Morrison being the first Australian PM to make a stand-alone visit since Paul Keating in 1994 is significant.

As is the reaction of southeast Asian nations keenly observing if Australia's Pacific Step-Up strategy will come at a cost to engagement with their region.

"All of those political and diplomatic signals will matter, as well as the bilateral issues, and discussions about trade and economy," Dr Le Thu said.

"I think it will be quite an important visit."