Greater cohesion, bloc's centrality underscore Vietnam's success as ASEAN chair

By Viet Anh   November 17, 2020 | 07:21 am PT
The effective conduct of online meetings and maintaining the bloc's centrality amidst a pandemic are Vietnam’s standout achievements as ASEAN chair, experts say.

"Vietnam has been effective in organizing and executing timely meetings and summits to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic," Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Fellow, Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Thailand, told VnExpress International.

Vietnam concluded its role as ASEAN chair for 2020 and transferred the chairperson’s hammer to Brunei on Sunday. Brunei will be the ASEAN chair in 2021 under the bloc's annual rotation rule based on the alphabetical order of the English names of member states.

Even as countries around the world applied stringent travel restrictions to stop the coronavirus from spreading, Vietnam organized two ASEAN summits in June and November, as also related meetings with key partners, including the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).

A honor guard stands near the logo of ASEAN 2020 in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

A honor guard stands near the logo of ASEAN 2020 in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines, said that despite trying circumstances, Vietnam was able to ably perform its role as this year's ASEAN chair. This is probably the first time that the virtual platform was used extensively to facilitate regional meetings, he said.

Pitlo said one reason that all ASEAN partners did not miss any online meeting hosted by Vietnam was its success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Hanoi deftly balanced the urgency of responding to the pandemic and stimulating economic recovery while pursuing the aspiration to foster ASEAN community-building and connectivity.

Vietnam's relative success despite limited resources provided valuable lessons for its neighbors, he said, adding that its "mask diplomacy" and economic performance have enhanced its leadership profile when much of the region was reeling from the pandemic’s blows.

Pham Quang Vinh, former Foreign Deputy Minister of Vietnam, said that Vietnam sustained consultations among ASEAN members and its partners to have fruitful meetings during the pandemic.

Vinh, a former head of the ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting Vietnam (2007 - 2014), described the consultations as a tool to keep ASEAN "vitality."

"It was conducted before meetings to build agendas and action plans," he said.

ASEAN centrality

Chongkittavorn said that Vietnam has been able to promote ASEAN centrality and profile even at a time the region and the rest of the world was grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said Vietnam has consolidated the ASEAN positions on regional issues including the fight against Covid-19 and balancing the bloc's relationship with the U.S. and China. On the South China Sea (East Sea in Vietnam), Vietnam’s chairpersonship has been able to place added emphasis on the relevance of international laws including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). Vietnam also has strengthened cooperation and dialogue with dialogue partners, he said. The bloc now has 10 dialogue partners: Australia, Canada, China, EU, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S.

"All in all, Vietnam has achieved its noble objectives of transforming ASEAN into a more cohesive and responsive organization," he added.

Vinh said a highlight of Vietnam's fruitful year as ASEAN chair was the bloc strongly emphasizing its principled stand on the East Sea in a year with "complicated developments."

"Maintaining peace, stability and maritime security are key principles of ASEAN, which are of interest to member countries as well as non-regional nations," he said.

Vinh noted that on August 8, the 53rd anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN, the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries released the Statement on the Importance of Maintaining Peace and Stability in Southeast Asia. This was a renewed commitment to maintaining Southeast Asia as a region of peace, security, neutrality, stability, and strengthening peace-oriented values in the region in line with international law.

The statement, Vinh said, expressed ASEAN's position on competition between major powers. The bloc does not want to take sides, but asks its powerful partners to cooperate based on international law, supporting peace, stability, and development in the region. With this statement, ASEAN has once again demonstrated its solidarity on the issue.

"The document summarizes ASEAN's principles, and has a longer vision," he said.

Vinh said partners continued to show their respect for the role of ASEAN because they have had established strong cooperation in recent decades through various ASEAN-led mechanisms such as EAS, ARF, ADMM-Plus. They have been discussing different key challenges like climate change, sea-level rise, the East Sea, and Mekong water management.

This year, key partners agreed to closely work with ASEAN to cope with Covid-19, on economic recovery and health issues.

Giving East Sea due weight

Moreover, ASEAN's key partners want to participate in discussions on developments in the East Sea because this is a geo-strategic and geo-economic region where freedom of navigation is crucial for their interest.

They have consistently maintained that disputes should be resolved by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, especially the UNCLOS 1982.

"Security and safety in the East Sea is a common interest," Vinh said.

Other experts opined that as a frontline littoral state, Vietnam has ensured that the East Sea issue was given its due weight, unifying the bloc in expressing concern about developments that may undermine regional stability and run counter to a rules-based maritime order.

Collin Koh Swee Lea, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it has always been the position of ASEAN member states – to maintain balance and regard UNCLOS 1982 as the legal basis of all activities at sea. "So we won’t expect Vietnam to push for these alone. It’ll surely be joined by many other member states," he said.

"The only major constraint is how Vietnam balances these regional interests at the bloc level with its own national interests if tensions again emerge in the South China Sea, repeating for instance what happened in Vanguard Bank last year," he said, referring to reports of Chinese oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and escorts operating illegally in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in the southern part of the waterway.

Hoang Viet, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, who is also a researcher closely following ASEAN meetings, said Mekong was another issue that Vietnam needs to push for discussions at future ASEAN meetings, because Brunei, the chair next year, is unlikely to prioritize it.

He said: "Mekong is an important issue, but it has not been treated at ASEAN meetings as a regional issue. The serious drought in the lower Mekong area has heavily affected people's livelihoods which could lead to other issues threatening the region's security."

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