In a few weeks from now, Vietnam will hand over the Chairmanship of the ASEAN to Brunei Darussalam. It is a rotational position and the process takes place on completion of a year-long responsibility during which a Member State as Chair of the ASEAN commits to uphold the principles of the ASEAN, contributes to its goals, and explores newer vistas to strengthen the organisation. In the case of Vietnam, the 2020 Chairmanship with the theme “Cohesive and Responsive” has been a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges. By all counts, Hanoi has delivered on the responsibilities notwithstanding the adverse circumstances of the pandemic and high-tensions in the South China Sea.
First, at the United Nations. Vietnam began the year with concurrent responsibility of being non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the term 2020 – 2021 for which it set out the theme “Vietnam: Trust worthy partner for sustainable pace”. In a video message to the High-level General Debate of the UN General Assembly, Party General Secretary, and President Nguyen Phu Trong conveyed that his country promotes “dialogue, de-escalation of tension and confrontation, and fair and reasonable solutions to regional and global peace and security issues” and champions multilateralism (ASEAN) for which it is “working with fellow member states to build a region of peace, friendship and cooperation”.
Second, at the ASEAN level, Vietnam led from the front and conducted all of the ASEAN related events including Summits, ASEAN Plus dialogues and other similar engagements listed in the “ASEAN Notional Calendar 2020” with very few postponements and cancellations due to COVID-19 pandemic. Majority of these activities were hosted on digital platforms and conducted through video conferencing which is the “testament that we able to do this without face-to-face meeting.” At the intra-ASEAN level, a variety of issues that span ASEAN’s political-diplomatic-economic-defence and non-traditional security-legal-development etc., engagements were conducted with finesse, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi commended Vietnam’s comprehensive and professional preparations and outcomes of AMM 53, with the biggest number of documents so far adopted (forty two including the ARF Hanoi Plan of Action II (2020-2025)) within the framework of ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meetings.
Third, Vietnam as ASEAN Chair 2020 can also take credit for raising the issue of South China Sea at the United Nations. President Nguyen Phu Trong in his message to the High-level General Debate of the UN General Assembly conveyed that while Vietnam is committed to the “maintenance and promotion of peace, stability, maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea (South China Sea)” and upholding international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS, emphasised and called on “all concerned parties to exercise restraint, avoid unilateral acts that would complicate the situation, and settle disputes and differences through peaceful means with due respect for diplomatic and legal processes.” It is also useful to recall the Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit which “emphasised the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations” and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc urged China to accelerate talks on an effective and efficient COC in line with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.
Vietnam’s attempts to have India onboard the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), one of the biggest free-trade pact involving 10-Member ASEAN, plus the six countries (Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand) with whom ASEAN has free trade agreements, is perhaps a dampener for the ASEAN. Last year in November, India had refused to join this mega regional trade pact due to a number of issues particularly its trade deficit with China. India’s relations with China are now at the lowest due to the ongoing military standoff in the Himalayas, and New Delhi has hardened its position on the RCEP. However, the “participating countries will keep the door open for India in case it decides to rejoin the trade deal in the future, because its participation will be important on political, economic and Asian solidarity fronts,”
There are still over two months for Vietnam as the ASEAN 2020 Chair and given the ongoing tensions between China and the US, there is potential for new issues that may emerge which would necessarily require adept diplomacy by Vietnam (ASEAN). In particular, the Single Draft Negotiating Text of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea could attract attention after China stated that it was “accelerating and advancing consultations on more binding” CoC to jointly safeguard peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant KalingaInternational Foundation, New Delhi.