The recent controversial China-ASEAN Summit in Kunming has cast a shadow on the unity, centrality, and relevance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is not the first time that the cohort of ten has been tested on its interaction with China, from the “signature” failure of the 2012 Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN to the more recent four-point consensus. In all of those events, the South China Sea dispute was the key point of pressure, whether it was explicitly mentioned or not.
While there is a growing tendency to criticize or even discredit ASEAN, I argue that there is a need to have a more granular look at certain issues as well as countries in understanding the association’s current state of being. The South China Sea dispute — being a thorn in regional unity and also stability — invokes different interests from different actors. The need to keep ASEAN relevant, it seems, is better understood among some members rather than others. For this reason, I suggest taking a closer look at Vietnam — an ASEAN member and one of the most active claimants in the South China Sea. Among the Southeast Asian states, Vietnam’s growing relations with the great powers are arguably the most dynamic.
Ascending the Regional Affiliation “Tiers”
A late-comer to ASEAN, Vietnam has not only socialized fast into the Southeast Asian community, but also proved itself to be capable of taking a more central role in the association. The 2010 presidency was a confirmation of Vietnam’s maturing membership in ASEAN as well as in its internationalization process. In ASEAN, since the enlargement of the second half of the 1990s, the new-comers — Vietnam (1995), Laos, Cambodia (1997) and Myanmar (1999) — were grouped together as ASEAN’s second tier. Due to their economic limitations, the new member states, also known as the CLMV countries, have enjoyed “special treatment,” including extra time to catch up with the rest of the group, in the early harvest programs. With its rapid economic development, Vietnam is catching up with the economies of the Tier 1 ASEAN members and is ambitious to join the ASEAN 6 than remain with its “Tier 2” neighbours. The CLMV is now increasingly referred to as the “CLM.”
Trust-Building While Resolving Disputes
The recent geo-political trends beg for a fresh look at Hanoi’s positions and roles in the region and regional architecture. Its great power diplomacy has been among the most active in the region (Le Thu, 2016). Particularly since the oil rig HYSY-981 crisis in mid-2014, its relationship with the US has taken off significantly. Other powers with vested interests in the regional power balance, like Japan and India, are also keen in deepening ties with Vietnam.
Being diplomatically and militarily active, Hanoi strikes others as a player whose significance in the region is growing. Vietnam has emerged as “the most capable and determined Southeast Asian state to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea,” even though it was the Philippines that had pursued legal measures. As regional geopolitics shifts, the Vietnamese role in determining the security play-out in the South China Sea is increasing.
Hanoi has neither the intention nor the capacity to turn the regional institution into a “proxy” vis-à-vis China. But it is actively advocating for ASEAN’s unity in this challenging time.
In the context of great power rivalry and its undermining effect on ASEAN unity and centrality, Vietnam’s position has gained additional importance. Hanoi recognizes the long-term dangers of China’s undermining of regional institutions and multilateralism. More importantly, Hanoi, pressed by security concerns vis-à-vis China, also realizes the potential of the regional grouping and the ASEAN-Plus partnership networks. After all, it was under Vietnam’s chairmanship that the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) was inaugurated in 2010. For a long time, ASEAN provided Vietnam with a perfect venue to socialize into the international system and re-emerge from the isolation it had fallen into in the late 1970s. Twenty years after joining ASEAN, Vietnam has arguably become the most active player in the region in terms of foreign policy. Its partnership network and reputation as a responsible actor in the international system has well exceeded the Southeast Asian region. Yet, ASEAN has remained as one of the main pillars of Vietnam’s foreign policy. Vietnamese leaders have throughout the years consistently emphasized the association’s role in regional dispute management and multilateral- and rules-based approaches, and hence have supported the association’s centrality.
Having a Vietnamese diplomat taking up the role of the incumbent ASEAN Secretary General helps Hanoi learn more about ASEAN institutions, regional diplomatic practices, and embrace a more mature phase of membership. Yet, leveraging the know-how of the first Vietnamese to take such a position is a sensitive matter, given the neutrality of the position and the extra-rigid scrutiny that China has placed on him because of his nationality. The resistance towards turning regional disputes into ASEAN disputes is well understood in Hanoi, which has neither the intention nor the capacity to turn the regional institution into a “proxy” vis-à-vis China.
Stay Consistent, Stay Relevant
The current regional political constellation — in particular the trend of concentrating on domestic politics at the expense of regional matters — partially explains the weakening commitment to ASEAN across Southeast Asia. This contributes to an expectation for countries with strong regional agendas, like Vietnam, to step up. This is especially since Vietnam has continued to advocate for a stronger and more unified commitment to a common security environment in which the smaller states of Southeast Asian can maximize their negotiating power. Vietnam is in a good position to seize this window of opportunity, as it is currently the only country that fits all the categorizations that divide the region to sub-groups. Vietnam is considered both continental but with pronounced maritime interests; and it was originally Tier 2 but is actively striving to be included in Tier 1. With its hybrid and transformational position, Vietnam is well positioned to be empathic to all the potential sub-groups. But the demanding challenge it faces is how to revive the enthusiasm about ASEAN among its Southeast Asian compatriots.
Le Thu, H. (2016). Vietnam’s great power diplomacy in the wake of growing tensions in the South China Sea. Asia-Pacific Strategic Dossier.