ASEAN is Vietnam’s platform to diversify relationships with major powers

The bloc is becoming increasingly important to the country's national interests, but South China Sea tensions pose a threat to unity

Hien Phan
October 12, 2022
ASEAN is Vietnam’s platform to diversify relationships with major powers
(Left to Right) Vietnam's Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Cambodia's Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn handshake in the "ASEAN-way" for a group photo during the Russia Ministerial meeting as part of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh, in August 2022. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Dialogue, trust, and responsibility were top of Bui Thanh Son’s agenda as he attended the East Asia Summit’s Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 5 August. 

Thanh Son, Vietnam’s minister for foreign affairs, used the Phnom Penh event as a crucial platform to stress the continuing importance of nurturing regional relations. 

As ASEAN marked its 55th anniversary of establishment, the bloc continues to face intensification of the U.S.- China rivalry. In May, U.S. President Joseph Biden pledged a $150 million investment package to Southeast Asian countries, of which 40% was spent on checking China’s coast guard activities in the South China Sea.

In the following month, China expanded its funding to help Cambodia upgrade Ream Naval Base. This became a new source of geopolitical controversy since major powers like the U.S. and Australia considered it as a clear sign of China’s military power projection in the Asia Pacific. 

Cambodia’s Defence Minister Tea Banh (left) and China’s Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian (right) take part in a groundbreaking ceremony at the Ream naval base in Preah Sihanouk province on 8 June, 2022. Photo: Pann Bony/AFP

This is not the first time ASEAN has been pushed to the forefront of the U.S.-China rivalry. While there has been growing criticism over whether ASEAN remains united and neutral regardless of the major powers’ competitions, the bloc’s perceived importance among member states plays a key role in its deliberations. 

Since joining ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam’s view on ASEAN importance to the country’s national interests has evolved significantly through three phases, ranging from fostering economic engagement with the bloc, making use of ASEAN platforms to manage the South China Sea disputes to leveraging the bloc to manage major powers’ engagement in the region. 

From 1989 to the early 2000s, after a decade of facing ASEAN’s and international isolation due to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, Vietnam intensified its efforts to foster economic cooperation and trade with the bloc to revive the economy. To pursue its goals, in 1995, Vietnam became an ASEAN member and, just a year later, joined the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. The moves led ASEAN to become ASEAN’s third largest export market by 2017.

However, at the time, Vietnam seemed to have no serious intention of relying on ASEAN’s support on criticising China’s South China Sea disputes. The scepticism from the Vietnamese side was linked to a series of controversial choices that ASEAN made in relation to Chinese activities in the region: ASEAN’s indifference to the 1988 Sino-Vietnamese naval clash in the Western Spratlys, the China-U.S. oil deal in disputed waters in 1992 and the Chinese seizure of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1995.

Nevertheless, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN in 2002 marked the first time that China joined a multilateral declaration on contested waters, changing Vietnam’s perspective of the bloc’s role in managing the disputed waters.

“The DOC reaffirms the commitment of all involved parties to freedom of navigation on the South China Sea,” said Former Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien

Since then, Vietnam began to make extensive use of ASEAN-centred institutions to gather international support for its stance against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. 

At the ninth Shangri-La Dialogue in 2010, Vietnam Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, feared that an armed clash in the South China Sea would affect not only individual countries but the entire Southeast Asian region. He also pushed for a new Code of Conduct. 

As the then-ASEAN chair, Vietnam successfully included the Regional Code of Conduct on the South China Sea in the association’s 2010 joint communique and restarted the ASEAN-China Senior Officials Meeting on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties. 

The end of the 2000s marked a new chapter of Vietnam’s regional policies. While continuing to place South China Sea issues on ASEAN agendas, Vietnam has extensively sought to enlarge membership of ASEAN-centred institutions. This was marked by the 2009 White paper from the Vietnamese Defence Ministry. The paper outlined that “Vietnam attaches importance to expanding defence dialogues with relevant countries, enabling all parties to grasp each other’s viewpoints, creating the opportunity for solving issues relating to the interests of all parties.”

This policy of expanding ASEAN dialogues was evidenced by Vietnam using its 2010 ASEAN chairmanship to invite the U.S. and Russia to join the EAS. Vietnam initiated and facilitated the establishment of ADMM+ with the involvement of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.

Performers dance and sing with flags of the ASEAN member countries at the closing ceremony of the 17th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its related meetings in Hanoi on 30 October, 2010. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

Vietnam’s regional policies have consolidated ASEAN’s role in managing regional security. 

All ASEAN member states have considered the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea as a major step towards regional stability. ASEAN’s deepening ties with many major powers, especially the U.S. , China, Japan, India and Russia, through ASEAN-centred institutions like East Asia Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting plus have enhanced the bloc’s strategic posture in Southeast Asia.

However, while Vietnam’s current approach has proved productive, recent geopolitical developments challenge the effectiveness of its policies on a regional level. 

ASEAN’s divergent responses to the Ukraine-Russia crisis and China’s activity at Cambodia’s Ream base have stoked mistrust from major powers including the U.S. and Australia and criticism of ASEAN unity. 

Whether Vietnam can continue to manage relationships with major powers through ASEAN depends on the country’s capacity to maintain influence within the bloc; meaning an active role in facilitating its unity in regional security issues, particularly the South China Sea disputes. 

As Bui Thanh Son affirmed during the foreign ministers’ meeting in early August, peaceful resolutions to the South China Sea disputes are key to maintaining the centrality of ASEAN on the wider Asian landscape and Vietnam’s key role within the hub. Cultivating these relationships in the face of growing geopolitical tensions takes more than just shared values, it takes a carefully planned strategy. Vietnam should play its cards carefully. 

Hien Phan is a doctoral researcher at the University of New South Wales studying ASEAN regional security and domestic politics. She is also a security fellow of the EANGAGE Project – Think next, Act next hosted by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Asian Vision Institute and Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

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