Vietnam News

Tasks before Vietnam as ASEAN Chair 2020

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Vietnam has taken up two important positions recently – the Chair of ASEAN for 2020 and the non-permanent member of the UNSC for 2020-2021. Both these positions present daunting tasks to Vietnam.

However, Vietnam has rich experience in dealing with the problems of ASEAN and also international relations particularly in South East and East Asia. Prior to this year’s ASEAN Chairmanship, Vietnam hosted the 6th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi in 1998, and presided over the 34th ASEAN Standing Committee (ASC) from July 2000 to July 2001 and held the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2010.   

 Vietnam has been involved with the building of this organisation since 1995 when it joined the organisation with the aim of bringing all South East Asian countries together for regional peace, freedom and prosperity. The theme ‘Cohesiveness and Responsive’ for the year has been aptly chosen. Cohesiveness symbolises ASEAN’s unity and solidarity in the face of increasing challenges and ‘Responsive’ reflects Vietnam’s intent to promote greater ASEAN pro-activism to defend the regional and extra-regional interests. Vietnam’s five priorities for the year are – strengthening ASEAN solidarity, deepen ASEAN integration economically and leveraging the fourth industrial revolution to alleviate inequality, promoting ASEAN identity by encouraging the development of common ASEAN values and educational projects, strengthening good relations with ASEAN’s external partners and improving ASEAN’s institutional capacity. They are needed so that the ASEAN can undertake its growing role efficiently.           

However, the present situation is extremely complex with China aggressively escalating its bullying tactics against ASEAN members including Vietnam. The sinking of Vietnamese boat in April, stand-off at the Malaysian coast, Chinese encroachment in the EEZs of Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are some of the recent examples of Dragons acts that are responsible for escalating tensions in the region. The Chinese claims are expanding. The pace of progress for finalisation of CoC is far from satisfactory. Chinese coercion, intimidation and sweet diplomacy continue to divide ASEAN taking advantage of its economic power. At the UN, Vietnam has to ensure that issue of China’s claims brought by other claimants receive due attention. The pandemic has overshadowed all other problems like a health crisis of this scale both in terms of spread and duration had not been witnessed. Resources of states are to be suitably deployed to fight the disease in a coordinated manner. The problem of illegal fishing activity continues along with the Chinese ban which is illegal. In addition, non-traditional threats continue to pose problems. 

Vietnam skillfully dealt with the pandemic within the country ensuring that there were no fatalities and the disease was contained. At the ASEAN level, under Vietnam’s chairmanship, all channels of communications among the ASEAN members were activated to share their problems and take appropriate actions. A statement was issued by the ASEAN Chair in mid-February drawing attention to the risks of this virus and called for regional and international cooperation. On 14th April, the Chair organised the online Special ASEAN+3 Summit on the Covid-19 response. The countries agreed to exchange experience and support each other with medical supplies. Vietnam also participated in several international virtual meetings and shared its experience and proposed measures to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam also supplied the much-needed medical equipment and protective gears not only in the region but beyond in Asia, Europe, US and South America. It emerged as an effective disease control model. 

The most important task ahead is to contain the increasing aggressiveness of China in the SCS. While unfortunately it has caused tension, its consequences have shown that the resolve of other claimants and external powers to oppose illegal claims of China has increased. So far in comparison to Vietnam’s defiant criticism of Beijing’s aggressive maritime behaviour, other claimants were more reserved. However, pushed to the wall, other claimants have now become vocal.  Malaysia’s December submission to the United Nations to establish the outer limits of its continental shelf in SCS reflects precisely this. Vietnam after its boat was sunk, as a responsible nation, ASEAN Chair and non-permanent member of the UNSC sent a ‘diplomatic protest note to UN on the China’s illegal claims over East Sea’ in April. Despite the grave provocation, Vietnam expressed its intent to settle the dispute peacefully. This incident drew adverse comments for China from the Philippines, who also strongly protested like Vietnam, the Chinese announcement to establish two districts in Paracels and Spratly Islands. Recently the Philippines has suspended the termination of the agreement between the Philippines and US on the treatment of US forces visiting the Philippines in; the light of political and other developments in the region’.  Indonesia on 26th May citing China’s notes protesting Malaysian application and rejecting Vietnam’s and Philippines’ positions on the matter, submitted a note to UN raising the PCA Ruling and pointing out that China’s ‘historic rights’ has no legal basis. 

The external powers too are concerned about the Chinese aggressiveness. The US has added weight to the demands of the South East Asian countries. US asserted her position in a note verbal addressed to the UN SG on 1st June against the provocative activities of China and urged China to adhere to international law and comply with the Ruling of PCA. India, US, Japan and Australia are also realising the need for containing the activities of Beijing and the strengthening of ASEAN. India and US have understood the need for Quad as was clear from the joint statement in Feb 2020 by Modi and Trump. They also stressed that the CoC should “not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law” and that ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific should be maintained”.   

Vietnam has to now ensure that the current pressure on China from ASEAN remains in place and the UN in a coordinated manner pressures China to accept the PCA’s Ruling. This should be on priority as if this is accepted, then the SCS would become a peaceful region that would be mutually beneficial. ASEAN’s unified approach would demand aligning of the interests of all so that a legally binding CoC may be finalised at the earliest.  

Other issues like non-traditional threats also require attention, particularly illegal and unreported fishing and drug trafficking. While they would not pose any serious problem, the agenda for the ASEAN requires review in view of fast-changing security environment and a comprehensive roadmap for future may be drawn. Vietnam having done well in controlling the pandemics and emerging as a model for others, gives hope for doing equally well in other spheres too and would be dexterously balancing its role as the ASEAN Chair and non-permanent member of the UNSC. 

By SD Pradhan – The Times of India – June 13, 2020

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