German FM Vietnam Visit: Counter-Balancing China?

“Vietnam is Germany’s important strategic partner”, Nhan Dan‘s Chinese edition quoted German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, in one of its headlines on October 29. Nhan Dan is the organ of Vietnam’s Communist Party central committee.

German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier left Berlin on October 29 to begin a trip intended to strengthen the two countries’ strategic partnership.

德国外交部长弗兰克-瓦尔特·施泰因迈尔10月29离开柏林,开始启程对越南进行访问,旨在加强两国战略伙伴关系。

German foreign minister Steinmeier is leading a delegation with members in charge of economic and cultural affairs.

德国外长施泰因迈尔率领负责经济和文化事务代表团对越南进行为期三天的访问。

The German foreign minister sees Vietnam as Germany’s important economic, political, cultural and strategic partner. The head of Germany’s federal parliament, Norbert Lammert, visited Vietnam in March 2015, and Vietnam [then] state chairman Trưong Tan Sang’s visit to Germany in November 2015 strengthened the two countries’ relations further.

德国外交部将越南是为德国重要的经济、政治、文化战略伙伴。德国联邦议院议长诺贝特·拉默特2015年3月对越南进行访问和越南国家主席张晋创2015年11月对德国进行访问为两国关系增添了新动力。

In the framework of the two countries’ strategic-partnership action plan, Germany’s and Vietnam’s cooperation activities are developing further, in a variety of fields, with new projects being added every year. One of these important projects is the “German House”, under construction in Ho Chi Minh City, which is going to be a headquarter for German organizations and companies in Ho Chi Minh City.

在两国战略伙伴行动计划框架内,德国与越南合作活动在各领域上继续向前发展,每年都有新的合作项目。两国重要合作项目之一是在胡志明市兴建 “德国屋”,这里将成为在胡志明市德国组织和企业的总部。

Bilateral trade between Vietnam and Germany amounted to 10.3 billion USD in 2015, with German imports from Vietnam at eight bn, and exports to Vietnam at 2.3 bn USD. Major export products from Vietnam are footwear, textiles, farming and seafood products, electronic components, wooden furniture, etc.. Major import products from Germany are machinery, transport, vehicles, chemical products, and measurement instruments, etc..

越德两国2015年双边贸易金额达103亿美元,德国自越南进口80亿美元、对越南出口23亿美元。越南对德国主要出口产品是鞋类、纺织品、农海产品、电子零件和木家具等;越南自德国进口主要产品是机械、运输车辆、化学物品和化学仪器等。

On Sunday, Nhan Dan reported a visit by Steinmeier to a German company’s investment site in Haiphong. According to the newsarticle, the gypsum production site, built by German gypsum producer Knauf, is one of the biggest investment projects in Haiphong.

Vietnam’s foreign broadcaster Voice of Vietnam‘s (VoV) German service adds a short description of the Phu Lac wind farm.

Betram Lang, a MERICS researcher, wrote earlier this month that

[i]n times of rising diplomatic tensions in the South China Sea, the European Union (EU) tries to bolster the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a counterweight to China in the region. To this end, the EU has offered generous financial support to foster the regional integration process and sponsor the still politically toothless ASEAN secretariat. It almost tripled previous financial commitments to 196 million EUR between 2014 and 2020.

That however was proving difficult: While Cambodia has been positioning itself as China’s closest ally in South East Asia since at least 2001, other ASEAN countries have recently sought their own kind of ‘privileged relationship’ with the PRC as well.

China’s online media apparently don’t report Steinmeier’s Vietnam visit – most of the Chinese-language coverage appears to be from Vietnamese sources.

Before heading for Vietnam, Steinmeier reportedly called on Vietnam’s leadership for political reforms in Vietnam, an issue that Vietnam’s state-controlled media didn’t cover (not in Chinese, anyway).

In a speech at the opening ceremony for a German and European Law program of study at Hanoi Law University, Steinmeier came back to the topic of political reforms. Successful modernization required the rule of law, and a strong civil society, he said.

Steinmeier also addressed the South China Sea conflict – in a diplomatic way -, plus ASEAN:

For us, but for Vietnam with its important and further growing role in ASEAN and the United Nations, one thing is clear: Peace can only be secured when international law and politics work together. International law aims at guide power within tracks, and the powerful in politics must accept these tracks. The latest decision, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was an important legal step. What matters now is that the groundbreaking elements of the decision will gradually be turned into practice of international law.

Für uns, aber auch für Vietnam mit seiner wichtigen und weiter wachsenden Rolle in ASEAN und in den Vereinten Nationen ist jedenfalls eines klar: Frieden wird nur gesichert, wenn Völkerrecht und Politik zusammenspielen. Das Völkerrecht zielt darauf ab, Macht in Bahnen zu lenken, und die Mächtigen in der Politik müssen diese Bahnen akzeptieren. Der jüngste Schiedsspruch, basierend auf der Seerechtskonvention der Vereinten Nationen, war ein wichtiger rechtlicher Schritt. Jetzt kommt es darauf an, dass die wegweisenden Elemente des Schiedsspruches Schritt für Schritt auch völkerrechtliche Praxis werden.

Vietnam’s opposition to China’s naval strategy in the South China Sea has been stronger than that of other ASEAN nations. But geostrategic considerations are only one aspect of Germany’s Vietnam policy. Vietnam’s economy keeps growing fast, and East Germany and Vietnam in particular share a history of economic cooperation.

Deutsche Welle, once Germany’s foreign radio station, in a March 2015 report, commemorating fourty years of German-Vietnamese ties:

When that country [East Germany] collapsed, almost all its Vietnamese workers suddenly lost their jobs. They did not want to return to Vietnam because the employment prospects in their home country were very poor. The Vietnamese economic boom was yet to come.

Even so, the majority of these Vietnamese were still repatriated because they did not have a residence permit.

The conflict over contract workers and the regulation of old debts strained the German-Vietnamese ties for several years, according to Gerhard Will. “Only during the course of negotiations, it became clear to both countries what they could offer a lot to each other,” writes Will, who has been a Vietnam expert and worked at the German Institute of International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

[…]

In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed the “Hanoi Declaration” to establish a “strategic partnership” between the two countries. The two leaders expressed the desire to continue economic partnership and cooperate in the areas of development policy, environment, education and science. The German-Vietnamese University in the city of Ho Chi Minh, founded in 2008, is considered a model project in terms of bilateral cooperation.

There is also a West German-Vietnamese history. 33,000 immigrants may not sound like a big number these days, but it did in the 1970s and 1980s.

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