High expectations during Vietnam’s Chairmanship of the ASEAN
Vietnam assumed ‘2020 Chairmanship of the ASEAN’ in November 2019 from Thailand in accordance with Article 31 of the ASEAN Charter under which the Chairmanship rotates annually. Hanoi announced the theme for its Chairmanship as ‘Cohesive and Responsive’, in which ‘Cohesive reflects the need to enhance ASEAN unity and solidarity, economic integration, ASEAN awareness and identity, and work toward a “people-centered” community’ and ‘Responsive underlines the importance of promoting ASEAN pro-activeness, creativity and capacity in response to opportunities and challenges brought about by rapid changes in regional and global landscape’.
Soon after taking over the 2020 Chairmanship, Vietnam was confronted with a ‘black swan’ event i.e. COVID-19. It delivered admirably by taking bold measures to control the spread of the virus in the country and announced that the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) will compile a report on the COVID-19 to be submitted to ASEAN leaders at the 36th ASEAN Summit scheduled in Vietnam in April.
Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung, who is the Secretary-General of the 2020 ASEAN National Committee, has identified five key priorities for his country’s Chairmanship Year and it is not surprising to see reference to Hanoi’s commitment to ‘regional peace and stability amid strategic complexities’. Boundary and associated disputes including illegal occupation, reclamation and weaponization of islands and features in South China Sea are central to ASEAN, and as a corollary a major issue for Vietnam’s 2020 Chairmanship. There is now evidence of a push back against Beijing’s intimidation. This is evident from the forceful statements and credible operational initiatives in South China Sea by the claimant states against China which has deployed law enforcement and paramilitary vessels.
In this context there are expectations from Vietnam to vigorously pursue and make substantive contributions towards keeping the South China Sea less turbulent and more peaceful, and address issues that threaten regional peace and security. It would also be Hanoi’s endeavor to prevent any confrontation and further escalation in disputes in the South China Sea. However, this may not be the case as a number of incidents in the South China Sea over resources i.e. fishing and offshore energy exploration have begun rather very early in Vietnam’s ‘2020 Chairmanship of the ASEAN’.
First is about Indonesia and China. The former does not claim any island or features in the Spratly Islands and therefore does not have any dispute in South China Sea; but presence of Chinese coast guard vessel escorting Chinese fishermen to fish in Natuna, part of Indonesian waters, which China claims to be the traditional fishing ground, prompted political and military response from Jakarta. There was also a standoff between China and Vietnam in the Vanguard Bank involving 50 Vietnamese and 40 Chinese vessels over the operations of the drilling rig Hakuryu 5 operated by Russia’s Rosneft in Vietnam’s oil and gas Block 06-01.
Another three-way standoff over oil and gas operations is playing out between China and Malaysia in which the state-owned Petronas is exploring on the extended continental shelf of a ‘Malaysian oil and gas block in the area for which Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur had submitted a joint claim’. China has resorted to intimidation similar to the Vanguard Bank between China and Vietnam.
At another level, United States military response in support of Taiwan after Chinese military airplanes flew across the Taiwan Straits and the Bashi Channel is noteworthy. Likewise, US’ support has been forthcoming for Vietnam against China and could trigger enhanced defence and security cooperation between the two sides as also create new opportunities for Hanoi to inform Beijing about its confidence to deal with China on the South China Sea issue at its own terms.
However, the Philippines would be a different challenge for Vietnam after President Rodrigo Duterte announced annulment of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) notwithstanding the fact that the US has been the most important ally of the Philippines in countering China’s expansive claims in the disputed Philippines Sea. It is useful to mention that Philippines is critical for US’ Indo-Pacific strategy of a free and open oceans.
Second is the about the Code of Conduct (CoC), an upgraded document of the earlier Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC), which is under negotiation between China and ASEAN member states and is expected to be adopted in 2021.Vietnam must concentrate on the CoC. The onus will be on Vietnam to not only build consensus among the ASEAN , Hanoi will have to work hard to put in place a workable COC which can then be taken forward by Brunei Darussalam who would assume the ‘2021 Chairmanship of the ASEAN’.
Third is about the contestation between the US and China over freedom of navigation operation (FONOP). During the last three years, the US forces have routinely conducted FONOP which Washington claims to be in accordance with international law and that its military will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits. Chinese reaction and response to the FONOP has been at the political, diplomatic and strategic levels. It has exercised coercion at sea through dangerous maneuvers and more recently a PLA Navy destroyer fired a military grade laser at a US P-8 surveillance aircraft.
ASEAN Chairmanship is a challenging position and attracts high expectations from the member countries. The position entails building upon the work done by the previous Chair as also pursue new regional issues that are always as challenging as the earlier ones. Besides, there are anticipations by regional and other global players to not only follow up the ongoing challenges but address new questions that confront the ASEAN. More often than not, the ASEAN countries have delivered and received appreciation from the international community.
By all counts Vietnam’s chairmanship of the ASEAN can be expected to be both challenging and rewarding. Hanoi is expected to live up to the expectations on the responsibilities enshrined in the ASEAN charter and deliver to the peoples of the ASEAN as also build upon the themes and priorities set by previous Chairmanship. Vietnam will also be under pressure to adopt a tougher line against China on the South China Sea issue in view of the recent spats between China and other claimant states. But Vietnamese leaders are known for their maturity and diplomatic skills and would play a pragmatic role to manage tensions in the region.
Image Credit: Vietnam Economic Times