The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been facing challenges in developing a cohesive regional identity with a responsive regional organisation. However, this issue has been compounded by great power rivalry and ASEAN’s slow progress to accelerate intraregional integration, resulting in concerns over the grouping’s relevance. As Vietnam has considerable stakes in ASEAN’s cohesion through its involvement in the South China Sea disputes and water management in the Mekong subregion, it should contemplate greater activism alongside other leading states in the region to ensure that ASEAN continues to be an integral part of the regional security order.
Southeast Asia’s balance of power: Beyond the binary option
A new administration in the United States (U.S.) does not signal a winding down in the U.S.-China rivalry. Despite calls for bilateral cooperation in shared concerns such as climate change, the Biden administration keeps key aspects of the Trump administration in place, like in the South China Sea. In this sense, Southeast Asia remains a focal point in the showdown between the two great powers.
This is undoubtedly not good news for Southeast Asia and ASEAN, the region’s premier organisation. ASEAN serves as an important platform for cooperation between member states and with external powers. Its operation follows the logic of two principles. First is the ASEAN Way, which prioritises informality, consensus-building, and non-confrontational bargaining styles in the decisionmaking process. Second is ASEAN centrality, in which the regional grouping and its related institutions like ASEAN Plus, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS) assume a central position in the regional integration.
However, that circumstance is in the past. China’s rapid rise and the relative decline of the U.S. steadily shifts the balance of power in China’s favour. Southeast Asia also sees its power asymmetry vis-à-vis China widen as regional economies integrate more closely with China. Under this new circumstance, the ASEAN Way that had allowed ASEAN’s success in maintaining security and prosperity ended up hobbling the emergence of a more cohesive, integrated regional identity. ASEAN’s priority for sovereignty and non-interference in decisionmaking prevents the regional grouping from mounting an effective response to regional challenges. Simultaneously, ASEAN centrality is under strain as China and the U.S. put forward their own visions for regional integration, embodied by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Indo-Pacific concept. This is evidenced in ISEAS’s 2021 survey on the region, where the top two concerns for ASEAN are its ineffectiveness in dealing with fluid developments and the possibility of it becoming an arena for great power competition.
While ASEAN’s relevance is strained, it does not mean Southeast Asian citizens wholeheartedly welcome China’s preeminence or U.S.’ return. The ISEAS survey also revealed that the region increasingly favours another choice apart from the traditional position of not siding, which is enhancing ASEAN’s resilience and unity so the regional grouping can fend off pressures from great powers (See page 32 of the survey).
Vietnam: Ready to take a leadership role?
Admittedly, strengthening ASEAN’s strategic autonomy against great powers is easier said than done. Nonetheless, as the U.S.-China rivalry remains the defining feature in the regional security environment in the immediate future, deeper integration is unavoidable if ASEAN wants to preserve its relevance. Furthermore, enhancing unity and resilience receives a region-wide unanimity. The ISEAS survey also shows that the citizens in countries perceived to be more welcome of China’s influence, like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, recognise the importance of consolidating ASEAN’s strength (See page 32 of the survey).
This task should be spearheaded by a group of leading states in Southeast Asia, which traditionally include Indonesia and Singapore, countries with political will, sufficient capacity, and capabilities to navigate these challenges. Nevertheless, 2020 provided an additional candidate from mainland Southeast Asia, which is Vietnam. From a hard power’s viewpoint, Vietnam is a promising candidate with the third-largest population in the region, a strategic position alongside the South China Sea, and a military that ranks 11th out of 26 in the Asia Pacific. Vietnam’s economic growth, which averaged 6-7% before the pandemic, continued to be one of the few bright spots in 2020 when registering a positive growth amid a worldwide recession. Vietnam’s exemplar COVID-19 pandemic response and its deft handling of the ASEAN Chairmanship also enhances its diplomatic status in the region and within its broad and diverse partnerships with external powers. Furthermore, Vietnam is also uniquely entangled in regional challenges that threaten ASEAN’s relevance. It is the only ASEAN member with considerable stakes in the South China Sea disputes and water management in the Mekong subregion.
While ASEAN remains a top priority for Vietnam’s foreign policy and the country is committed to a robust and resilient ASEAN, Vietnam has not expressed clear signs that it is interested in taking a leadership position. Its leaders prefer to focus on economic growth and national development.
Therefore, Vietnam undoubtedly has the capacity, capabilities, and motivations to assume a greater role in managing regional affairs. However, the question is whether it has the political will to do so. While ASEAN remains a top priority for Vietnam’s foreign policy and the country is committed to a robust and resilient ASEAN, Vietnam has not expressed clear signs that it is interested in taking a leadership position. Its leaders prefer to focus on economic growth and national development. The Political Report of the 12th Party Congress displayed this focus on domestic matters, as the top priorities for the Vietnamese Communist Party were party-building, restructuring the economy, and protecting national sovereignty.
Broad goals to enhance ASEAN’s resilience
Nevertheless, Vietnam can consider some options to signal that it is ever more committed to strengthening ASEAN and making the organisation more responsive and cohesive – just like its ASEAN Chairmanship theme. Below are some broad themes Vietnam can pursue with other leading states like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines:
- Accelerating intra-ASEAN economic integration: ASEAN statistical data shows that, from 2010 to 2019, even though intra-ASEAN trade in goods grew from USD 502 to 632 billion, it could not keep up with the growth of extra-ASEAN trade in goods, which rose from USD 1.498 to 2.183 billion (See page 53 of the report). The same development also occurred in trade in services since both intra-ASEAN service exports and imports from 2010 to 2018 declined (See page 30 and 32 of the report). Avoiding over-reliance on external trade partners and strengthening ASEAN resilience require regional countries to facilitate greater intra-regional economic integration.
- Fixing ASEAN Way: Despite its advantages, ASEAN’s unanimity-based decisionmaking process gives veto power to each member to the detriment of regional cohesiveness and unity. Great powers can sabotage the process by simply putting pressure on perceived weak links in the organisation. Therefore, member states should experiment with alternative processes such as ASEAN minus X formula based on majority voting or “minilateralism,” which allows a more robust response among groups of core, likeminded members.
- Continued diversification of partnerships: While ASEAN appreciates the values and benefits from closer cooperation with China and the U.S., its members should also consider broadening its network of strategic partners and deepen cooperation with them. For example, members should build greater rapport with partners like Japan and the European Union (EU), which are ASEAN’s most trusted partners, through cooperation that aims to address the region’s major concerns like a pandemic response, economic recovery and widening socio-economic gaps.