Yearend Assessment of Vietnam’s Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

Vietnam took over the chairmanship of ASEAN in November 2019, and outlined that the objective of the next year of ASEAN meetings would be on ‘cohesiveness and responsive attitude’. This was meant to bring about better understanding within the ASEAN members on issues related to connectivity, economic integration, revisiting the ASEAN values and norms in the context of emerging challenges. Further, Hanoi’s experience of being the Chair of ASEAN earlier in 2010 also came in handy to impart additional momentum in achieving goals and objectives of the grouping.

Vietnam took over the chairmanship of the ASEAN organization when the issues related to South China Sea, dams on Mekong River, and negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) were in the process. Vietnam also looked forward to developing the blueprint for the ASEAN community building and addressing challenges with regard to meeting the organisational objectives for the year 2025.

In the speech given by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc earlier in the year the objectives for the ASEAN meetings were clearly outlined. He stated that the organization needs to work on building community, developing capacities, buttressing identity and also better coordination within the constituent elements of the organization. During the period of one-year, Vietnam as the chairman of the organization has worked diligently through interacting and developing better relations with European Union, the US, Japan, China and India while working on building cohesiveness and understanding on the subjects earmarked for the ASEAN meetings.

Vietnam had to steer the organisation, and it did not anticipate that the COVID 19 pandemic would severely compromise the agenda, and also the layout of the meetings in the year 2020. Despite these constraints Vietnam undertook the challenge and also developed consensus on developing common protocols related to public health emergencies, medical research and developing coordination mechanisms with regard to countermeasures against the COVID 19 pandemic. It has been seen that many of these issues which have been discussed during the senior officials’ meetings were highlighted and a common consensus was reached.

During one of the meetings of ASEAN Foreign Ministers held in September 2020, it was acknowledged that there was a need for buttressing the ASEAN community vision and also acknowledging the fact that ASEAN centrality is non-negotiable in the any new multilateral formations. This was primarily meant to address the challenge which has been posed by the construct of Indo-Pacific and how ASEAN as an organization will place itself in these trying times. While ASEAN has made a reference to the Indo-Pacific in its outlook document but it has been very categorical that it would not play one dialogue partner against another and would like that Indo-Pacific should be used for addressing issues related to maritime security in the region.

During the meetings which were held in 2020, Vietnam has comprehensively assessed the working of the institutional mechanisms, and evaluated the reports which act as blueprint for the ASEAN community. The most important milestone that Vietnam has achieved during the course of the meetings has been in the context of developing cohesive and collective effort against the COVID 19 pandemic. It established joint working groups on public health emergencies, sharing of best practices, and highlighted the need for composite cooperation in medical research and distribution of vaccines so that larger population in the region of South East Asia could be protected in future.

Hanoi also took note of the challenges that have been emerging in the field of trade facilitation, business visas and also worked towards addressing the non-tariff measures which have been used by countries to protect their domestic industries. In this context the important issues which were highlighted included food security, digital connectivity, financial stability and research on renewable energy. Vietnam clearly highlighted that ASEAN solidarity and unity is required in these changing times. It also asserted that there was a need for coordination between the ASEAN dialogue partners, World Health Organization and bringing global consensus on the issue.

During the meetings Vietnam has alluded to the South China Sea as East Sea thereby making a departure with regard to reference points on this hotly contested region in Southeast Asia. Vietnam assiduously conducted all the conferences in the online mode and achieved milestones in addressing challenges related to transnational crime, homeland and human security, and developing coordination mechanisms among the ASEAN law enforcement agencies.

During the year long meetings it was also able to bring about dialogue among the financial institutions and address the need for creating a better financial infrastructure in the region. This was primarily aimed to bring about financial stability in the case of recession and recessionary trends which might usher in after the COVID 19 pandemic.

In the list of signatories of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) it was able to include few more countries in the list. It was widely acknowledged that fact the despite these COVID-19 pandemic constraints the ASEAN chair got 42 documents approved during the course of the meetings prior to the summit meeting. It also allocated more responsibilities to the ASEAN regional forum under the Hanoi Plan of Action II 2020- 2025.

In the Chairman’s statement of the 37th ASEAN summit it stressed that there was a need for rising above challenges so as to sustain growth. It also acknowledged that there was a need for recognising the dividend of peace, security, stability and neutrality for the region, and therefore there is need for synergy among the ASEAN led mechanisms and bringing cohesive outlook towards Indo-Pacific architecture. Vietnam, as the Chair also not only underlined the necessity for concluding a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea in the mutually agreed timeframe but also in consonance with 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) 1982 and which adheres to international law. Concerns were also raised regarding reclamation activities and serious incidents in the SCS with the potential for escalation with the reiteration that UNCLOS 1982 is the basis for determination of various maritime rights. Eschewing of militarization activities in SCS also found a mention. Such an articulation on SCS by the Chair was very clear and forthright as compared to many such statements made by the previous Chairs and especially so in July 2012 when Cambodia was the Chair and when no joint communiqué of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers summit could be issued as this was possibly done due to pressure from China.

Under the Chairmanship of Vietnam the three ASEAN community blueprints for the year 2025 and the master plan related to ASEAN connectivity have made significant progress and the mid-term reviews would add to the process. In the chairman statement it was highlighted that there is a need for regional preparedness as well as regional and international coordination among agencies so as to counter public emergencies. The ASEAN Response fund related to public health emergencies in terms of financial support and creating awareness was one of the achievements in this process. The regional reserve of medical supplies and public health issues has strengthened the regional capacities and is also addressing emerging diseases and new public health emergencies.

The recovery blueprint which have been framed included enhancing the health system and intra-ASEAN economic collaboration and working towards digital connectivity in a better way. The establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health as Centre of excellence would also ensure contribution from other dialogue partners. Vietnam has been successfully able to address the issues related to food security and safety, travel corridor arrangements, enhancing collaboration with dialogue and sectoral dialogue partners.

In terms of review of the ASEAN community blueprints it was noted that more than 80 per cent of the activities which have been undertaken would be further progressed in future. Vietnam acknowledged the fact that the ASEAN charter needs to evolve so as to address new emerging challenges and build on new protocols and coordination mechanisms related to dispute settlement. The ASEAN has made remarkable progress on issues related to gender equality, women empowerment and developing ASEAN connectivity and smart cities network. It is important to note that the Hanoi summit addressed the need for full and effective implementation of the measures to counter the rise of radicalization within ASEAN.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic raging in ASEAN countries Vietnam organized numerous meetings of ASEAN led mechanisms like ASEAN Plus One, East Asia Summit Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. Overall objective of ASEAN under Vietnam chairmanship continued to be engagement of Indian Ocean region and broader Asia Pacific region in line with ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific.

Hanoi ASEAN summit also acknowledged the need for entertaining Timor Leste request for ASEAN membership. It took note for capacity building in the country and undertaking assessment for meeting the critical requirement for the membership in the organization. While one can very easily say that most of the meetings were in virtual mode therefore the outcome might be limited but one must appreciate the fact that in such constrictive situation Vietnam has performed very well in achieving the targets for the whole year.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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