The last year has been a period of fading forces, amplified tensions, and emerging synergies for Vietnam. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) had to be renegotiated after the US withdrew. The resource-rich South China Sea remained a flashpoint due to the overlapping claims of countries like the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as China and Vietnam. The year 2017 culminated in Vietnam hosting the APEC summit and the announcement of concessions amongst itself, China, and the U.S.
But soft power—our focus here—is a form of diplomacy that depends on shared values and ideals, economic ties, and cultural exchange. This contrasts with the more coercive nature of hard power, which relies on military might and economic sanctions to claim global influence. Here, we line up the twelve countries that enjoy the greatest commercial and cultural clout in the new emerging Vietnam as we take a closer look at the country’s global relations in Vietnam’s soft power ranking.
Vietcetera’s breakdown of Vietnam’s soft power ranking
Ranked number twelve on Vietnam’s soft power ranking, India and Vietnam share common ground due to their past struggles for independence and unification. The two countries’ relations have recently risen to a new level as Vietnam is playing a pivotal role in India’s Act East policy. As part of the policy, India has prioritized efforts to establish closer strategic ties with Southeast Asian countries to counterbalance China’s strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific realm.
Vietnam and India have also intensified ties on the economic and cultural front. The two countries have made it a goal to increase bilateral trade to US $15 billion by 2020. Some major export commodities from India include pharmaceuticals, cattle feed ingredients, textiles, steel, and precious stones.
The Indian Cultural Center, which opened in Hanoi in 2017, has continued its mission to promote Indian culture in Vietnam through yoga, dance, and music. Having set up multiple entrepreneurship and language training centers across the country, India has also demonstrated a commitment to bolstering Vietnamese education.
The close relationship between Russia and Vietnam since the Cold War remains robust. This year, the second class of Vietnamese students graduated from the State Atomic Energy Corporation program at the Obninsk Institute for Nuclear Power Engineering. This program was established to further cooperation between Vietnam and Russia specifically in the field of nuclear power.
In his visit to Moscow in early 2018, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh expressed satisfaction over the progress made by the Vietnam-Eurasian Economic Union and over bilateral relations in the fields of defense, education, culture, and tourism. Russia and Vietnam signed the Cooperative Plan for the 2019-2020 period, thus paving the way for further cooperation between the two countries.
Thailand is Vietnam’s most prominent ASEAN trading partner, but the country’s position in Vietnam’s soft power ranking stems from other factors as well. Thailand is Vietnam’s second biggest supplier of consumer goods. And Vietnam’s leading supermarket chains, including BigC and Mega Market, belong to Thai companies. The “Viet Nam-Thailand Friendship Association” and the “Thailand-Vietnam Friendship Association” represent the two sides’ strong local affiliations, while agreement in the realms of labor, education, science-technology, and transportation services speak to the countries’ mutual interests on the international stage.
A look at Vietnam-Taiwan academic ties reveals that out of all 18 New Southbound Policy countries, Vietnamese make up the second largest group of international students in Taiwan. It’s not just students who are flocking to Taiwan though. Taiwan has also become an increasingly popular vacation destination among Vietnamese as the number of direct flights between the two countries reached 248 per week in mid-2017, visa regulations for Vietnam passport holders have relaxed due to Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, and the prices of multiple-day vacation packages to Taiwan have fallen.
Back in Vietnam, the popularity of Taiwanese-style bubble tea shops has surged this past year. According to Euromonitor, the Vietnamese milk tea market is valued at US $282 million and has had an annual growth rate of 20 percent. Well-known Taiwanese brands such as Ding Tea, Gong Cha, and Tra Tien Huong remain dedicated to maintaining a reputation for quality.
And despite recent environmental damage caused by a Taiwan-based company in Vietnam, economic ties between the two countries remain strong. As of March, Vietnam’s 4th largest source of foreign direct investment is Taiwan. The investments cover 2,549 projects, worth nearly US $31 billion.
Singapore’s position in Vietnam’s soft power ranking is best defined economically. That’s because Singapore is Vietnam’s third largest foreign investor and sixth largest trading partner.
There’s no better symbol of the two countries’ economic partnership than the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks—there are seven throughout Vietnam. These parks have attracted more than US $9 billion in investment while simultaneously helping to boost sustainable growth and urbanization in Vietnam.
In early 2018, Singapore and Vietnam signed a suite of agreements to further collaborate on financial innovation and natural gas development which coincided with the 45th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations.
Beyond economic cooperation, the two countries share visions on the global stage especially within the framework of ASEAN, APEC, and the United Nations. They affirmed the importance of maintaining peace and freedom in the South China Seas, as well as exploring approaches to counter-terrorism, human trafficking, and money laundering.
#7, 6 and 5. United Kingdom, Canada, Australia
The UK, Canada, and Australia tie for seventh place in Vietnam’s soft power ranking.
While the relationship between Vietnam and the UK is relatively young, it is built on a strong foundation. Bilateral trade has more than doubled since the two signed the Strategic Partnership, which is paving the way for a potential EU-Vietnam free trade agreement. The British Council have also been working to support the domestic creative community with a project to map and help the growth of creative hubs in Vietnam.
Canada-Vietnam bilateral trade reached an all time high of nearly US $5.5 billion in 2016. As one of Canada’s 25 countries of focus, Vietnam receives steady development assistance to tackle poverty and boost entrepreneurship.
And then there’s Australia. As one of Vietnam’s largest providers of non-refundable official development assistance, Australia sends Vietnam AU $110 million per year. Currently, the two countries are in the midst of elevating their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership. Vietnam and Australia signed off on this decision during the first-ever ASEAN-Australia Summit, held in March.
This past year, the three countries hosted a collective 57,000 Vietnamese students—and they also collaborated with Vietnam on multiple university scholarship programs to further academic and cultural exchange.
Earlier this year, multiple influential French companies signed business contracts with Vietnamese entities. Bouygues will be building a 31-kilometer subway in Hanoi. EDF, a French national electrical supplier, will build facilities for liquefied natural gas in the Son My province.
Bamboo Airways, a new airline started by a Vietnamese construction company, FLC Group, signed with the France-based commercial aircraft provider Airbus in a US $3.1 billion memorandum.
In education, the establishment of the Franco-Vietnam Science and Technology University demonstrates increased scientific exchange between the two countries. Moreover, Vietnamese students make up the second-largest Asian student community in France, with 6,000 students coming in each year for academic purposes.
Academic ties between Vietnam and the U.S. remain strong with nearly 4,000 exchange alumni and 21,000 Vietnamese international students currently enrolled in higher education programs. These ties have been further strengthened by the launch of the Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City, and the recent establishment of a Peace Corps program to advance English language learning in Vietnam.
While Vietnam-U.S. academic exchange is noteworthy, strategic ties are also worth a closer look. In March 2018, the USS Carl Vinson anchored off Danang, marking the first time since 1975 that a US Navy aircraft carrier had arrived in Vietnam. This sign of improved ties, especially in the wake of South China Sea tensions, pushes the US up a little higher on Vietnam’s soft power ranking.
#2. South Korea
Vietnam’s biggest export isn’t coffee, it’s mobile phone components. And the biggest investor in that sector is the Korean multinational Samsung. Like any long-term relationship it’s had its ups and downs. In 2017, Samsung alone accounted for almost one fourth of Vietnam’s total exports, but a study published late last year by a collaboration between global environmental watchdog IPEN and the Hanoi-based Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development found that Samsung factory workers in Vietnam suffered major health impacts from toxic chemical exposure and overworking. Though Samsung has argued against the validity of the study, the report still negatively impacts South Korea’s soft power in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, as Vietnam-South Korea business ties continue to deepen, so too does Vietnam’s love for Korean pop culture. YouTube data revealed that Vietnam is the largest source of views for BTS’ “Fake Love” music video.
Vietnam’s strengthening relations with its far-east ally may be down to a shared fear of China’s assertiveness. However, the relationship is an enduring one. Number one on Vietnam’s soft power ranking, Japan’s soft sell has never been stronger. The country is the second-biggest investor in Vietnam as the Japan-Vietnam Joint Initiative enters the 15th year and seventh phase of its existence. Besides that, Vietnam is currently ranked fourth in the investment preferences of Japanese companies behind China, Thailand, and the USA.
In Vietnam, Japan’s image has been strengthened by its incident-free support of the metro development in Ho Chi Minh City—despite some delays and budget woes. The project is supported by JICA (the Japanese International Cooperation Agency), and two Japanese conglomerates—Sumitomo Corporation and Shimizu-Maeda. In Hanoi, on the other hand, the development of their largely Chinese-backed metro development has been marred by a series of accidents. And there’s no better symbol of Japan’s cultural influence right now than the gleaming new city centerpiece, the Takashimaya megamall.
Written in collaboration with Jolie Minh Tran