Vietnam’s interests are best served when it protects its autonomy and maintains an independent stance on international affairs, Carlyle Thayer wrote in his exclusive piece for Tuoi Tre News.
Vietnam enters the year of 2020 as Hanoi takes the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and at the same time serves as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Yet this would be Vietnam’s special historical period.
While Vietnam is widely considered to be successful in global integration, Hanoi has become the focus of worldwide geopolitical and economic competition.
Writing for Tuoi Tre News on December 31, 2019, Carl Thayer, a well-known expert on Southeast Asia affairs, argued that Vietnam’s top priority in 2020 is to find balance between national interests and its responsibilities in the two international posts.
The emeritus professor, from the University of New South Wales' Australian Defence Force Academy, also suggested how Vietnam can take advantage of its role to serve its wishes.
Thayer’s article considered three sets of questions as Vietnam enters 2020 at the start of a new decade.
First, what challenges does Vietnam face on the diplomatic, security and defense fronts?
Vietnam will face a heavy workload in 2020 as its takes on added responsibility as ASEAN Chair and as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The main challenge for Vietnam is how to pursue its own national interests while acting in an impartial role as ASEAN Chair and non-permanent member of the Security Council. For example, Vietnam will have to build consensus among ASEAN members as they negotiate with China on a Code of Conduct in the [East Vietnam Sea]. At the same time Vietnam must safeguard its sovereign jurisdiction over the resources in its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
The main challenge Vietnam faces on the Security Council is how it should vote on hot topics like the denuclearization of North Korea and Iran when there is disagreement among the major powers, for example when China and Russia disagree with the United States and its allies.
Vietnam must maintain internal stability as it prepares for the thirteenth national congress of the Vietnam Communist Party. Vietnam will need to safeguard itself from “information warfare” and cyberattacks by hostile forces seeking to destabilize the country.
Vietnam’s national security and defense will be tested by China’s actions in the [East Vietnam Sea]. Will China resume illegal surveying in Vietnamese waters by sending Coast Guard, maritime militia and fishing boats to escort the survey ship? If so, how should Vietnam respond? Equally important is how Vietnam should manage anti-China public opinion that is certain to swell if Beijing attempts to intimidate Hanoi.
On the defense front, Vietnam will face the challenge of how to expand defense cooperation with friendly states without provoking China. A key issue is whether Vietnam and the United States should raise their bilateral relations to a strategic partnership.
Secondly, what are Vietnam’s top priorities and what opportunities and challenges will Vietnam face in attaining these priorities?
Vietnam’s leaders have set five priorities as ASEAN Chair: (1) strengthening ASEAN unity and solidarity, (2) intensifying ASEAN’s economic integration and connectivity, (3) promoting ASEAN identity and awareness, (4) enhancing ASEAN’s global partnership for peace, stability and sustainable development, and (5) increasing ASEAN’s institutional capacity and effectiveness.
Vietnam has the opportunity to demonstrate proactive leadership to pursue these priorities because it is ASEAN Chair. Vietnam has advanced the motto “Cohesive and Response” to signal its approach. The main challenges are how to advance ASEAN’s ongoing program of community building and connectivity with Vietnam’s new initiatives. A year is a short period of time to effectively improve ASEAN’s institutional capacity and effectiveness. This priority is vital as it is directly related to achieving successful outcomes in the other four priority areas.
As ASEAN Chair, Vietnam will also chair all ASEAN-related institutions as well as ASEAN-Plus institutions. Vietnam can shape their agendas to suit its priorities and interests.
Third, how can Vietnam leverage the successes of 2019 in 2020?
Vietnam has enormous prestige because it was the unanimous choice of the Asia Block at the UN for non-permanent membership on the Security Council and the country was elected by a commanding majority of votes in the UN General Assembly.
Vietnam will enter 2020 with two important advantages: it is politically stable and its economy is growing at a good rate. In 2020, Vietnam’s economy should benefit from its membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. This will provide useful leverage in renegotiating a free trade agreement with the United States and the final stages of achieving the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Vietnam’s dual role as ASEAN Chair and non-permanent membership on the Security Council will give it additional leverage in dealing with major and middle powers. But more importantly, Vietnam can leverage its 16 strategic and 12 comprehensive partnerships to advance its foreign policy goals of “peace, cooperation and development” and use these partnerships to insulate itself from major powers who might try to pressure it to follow a particular line on international issues. Vietnam’s interests are best served when it protects its autonomy and maintains an independent stance on international affairs.