Canada is betting $2.3 billion on the Indo-Pacific region in a strategy that has been described as a “once-in-a-generation global shift.” But since the plan’s release in November 2022, tensions with two of the region’s major powers – India and China – have only increased.

Canada could pivot to focus on other countries, especially in the dynamic region of Southeast Asia, to achieve success. Vietnam is one potential partner that could play a key role.

Not only is it Canada’s largest trading partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Canada became a “strategic partnership” last year, but it is also the second-fastest-growing economy in Asia with a young, ambitious population.

For Canada to develop closer ties with Vietnam, a deeper understanding of what drives that country’s government is critical. Its overarching priority is economic security, which is no surprise as Vietnam is emerging as one of the region’s success stories.

Vietnam is determined to become a high-income country by 2045 but is facing water and energy insecurity, and is increasingly feeling the effects of climate change. Key challenges and opportunities facing the government are amplified within one area: the Mekong River Delta.

This southern coastal region is nearly the same size as Nova Scotia and is home to 20 million people. As Vietnam’s “rice bowl” and the world’s third-largest rice producer, the region is critical to global food security and sustenance.

It also supports several industries, including textile and electronics manufacturing, inextricably linking it to global supply chains and making it vital to the “China plus one” business model that many companies worldwide have developed to diversify their supply lines.

Environmental stress

Alarmingly, the Mekong River, the lifeblood of the region, is threatened by an extreme water shortage because of upstream hydropower dams – particularly in China and Laos – along with the effects of unsustainable development practices and climate change. The delta is predicted to disappear entirely by the end of the century if current trends continue.

Even today, the region is under significant environmental stress. In My Tho City, an inland port in Tien Giang province, people are paddling to work in kayaks because of extreme flooding from tidal surges.

In other areas of the province, a state of emergency was called in April due to a freshwater shortage. Extreme drought and saline intrusion from the sea have become so severe that thousands of people have been forced to wait in lineups to get potable water from tankers. Thousands of farmers have endured critical crop losses.

Canada has expertise in agri-tech, clean technology innovation and freshwater management – all sectors that Vietnam considers critical to economic and environmental stability in the delta. Canada can use these to show we can be an active and reliable partner to Vietnam, while also advancing our Indo-Pacific strategy.

Canada has had some notable projects in Vietnam, including the successful creation of Tra Vinh Community College.

More recently, Canada led a trade mission to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and provided $40 million to “help Vietnam realize its development projects towards sustainable and inclusive growth.” Last November, Canada became a donor partner with the Mekong River Commission, which governs the mighty transboundary waterway.

Managing water across boundaries

While these are welcome developments, there are abundant opportunities for the Canadian government to do more with Vietnam on climate and water management.

Canada has a wealth of experience with transboundary water governance, including an established framework for provinces, territories and Ottawa to work together in managing water resources in the Mackenzie River Basin.

Canada could also invest in Vietnam’s water sector, which needs up to US$2.7 billion to help reach an ambitious target to build a clean and resilient water supply by 2050. Given Tien Giang province’s recent state of emergency, this is an area where Canada can offer its experience and expertise.

Canada could also increase its regional activity in ASEAN. The challenges facing the Mekong River reach far beyond Vietnam’s borders. The Mekong is one of the main sources of food and income for about 60 per cent of the area’s population and the river basin produces enough rice to feed 300 million people a year.

Vietnam aims to export almost two-thirds of its rice to ASEAN countries next year, so there is also an opportunity for Canada to honour its commitments as a regional strategic partner to ensure food security and fight climate change.

Canada could use its agri-tech solutions to support low-carbon agricultural practices and help farmers in the Mekong subregion adapt. We could also share our clean-tech expertise to provide solutions for climate change effects faced by Vietnam and other partners, including Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Another way for Canada to reach its Indo-Pacific objectives and support the Mekong Delta would be to partner with allies who have already established a significant and long-term presence in the region. They include Australia, the Netherlands, the U.S., Japan, Germany and South Korea – countries with which Canada already has strong relationships.

The Canadian government cannot afford to miss this moment. Its Indo-Pacific strategy puts Canada in a strong position to establish itself as a reliable partner to help Vietnam, one of the most important countries in Southeast Asia, face its challenges in the Mekong River Delta.

Editor’s Note: This article is based on fieldwork done in Vietnam in November 2023 and on desktop research done as part of a UBC master of public policy and global affairs global policy project.

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Amanda Doyle
Amanda Doyle is part of the UBC master of public policy and global affairs global policy project and has a background in Canadian policy, global governance and security, as well as Asia-Pacific geopolitics.
Charlotte Bull
Charlotte Bull is part of the UBC master of public policy and global affairs global policy project and has a background in Canada-Asia relations, urban sustainability and global governance.
Nasim Victory
Nasim Victory is part of the UBC master of public policy and global affairs global policy project and has a background in political science, law, and global governance and security.
Ashley Brownlie
Ashley Brownlie is part of the UBC master of public policy and global affairs global policy project and has a background in development, equity and social change, and human geography.
Greta-Quinn Goranson
Greta-Quinn Goranson is part of the UBC master of public policy and global affairs global policy project and has a background in environmental geography, political science and earth sciences.

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