Vietnam Should Be ASEAN’s First Among Equals

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As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) faces renewed scrutiny in light of its comparatively weak response to the coronavirus crisis, the perennial question of the future of the multilateral body and its long-standing leadership gap is yet again on the table. Will the current public health crisis confronting Southeast Asia mark the death knell of a regional bloc unable to determine its own future, or will fresh challenges create both space for institutional renegotiation and increased agency for states willing and able to take on the challenge of leading an institutional bloc famous for its unwillingness to be led?

The question is not merely an academic one; the security issues that have bedeviled Southeast Asia for the last two decades continue to develop apace. A Vietnamese fishing boat was reportedly sunk on April 4 by a Chinese surveillance vessel, leading to a formal protest by Hanoi and a strongly-worded statement of support from the Philippines. Despite China’s recent roll out of “mask diplomacy,” an all-out push by Beijing to frame the coronavirus narrative in a manner beneficial to China’s long-term interests, and a global focus on flattening the curve, Southeast Asia’s security challenges and the question of ASEAN’s future remains more salient than ever.

When ASEAN was first established, the bloc’s general policy direction was outlined by Jakarta. Naturally this was much simpler when there were only five member states, each of which was allied with the United States, supporting a series of Cold War proxy wars and sharing “Domino Theory” concerns as to their own respective futures. But Indonesia’s role as the region’s primus inter pares ultimately declined in the 1990s, as the bloc expanded – rising to its current ten members by 1999 – and as Suharto’s dictatorial rule withered, with his regime finally collapsing in 1998. 

Instead of replacing Indonesia as the bloc’s de facto leader, a consensus-based model (the much ballyhooed “ASEAN Way”) was developed. However this appeal to consensus has, in fact, driven the bloc apart. ASEAN failed to adopt a region-wide agreement on Chinese aggression in the South China Sea in 2016, for instance, because Cambodia and Laos, Beijing’s two closest allies in the region, objected to the more strongly-worded statement sought by the likes of Vietnam and the Philippines, China’s most active rival territorial claimants. Non-interference in any member’s affairs has also meant ASEAN did next to nothing about the genocide of the Rohingya that began in Myanmar in 2016, nor against political deterioration in Cambodia the following year.  

Even before the coronavirus crisis, analysts sensed that things in ASEAN had to change; consensus could no longer be maintained, particularly in the context of the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China, which increasingly centered in Southeast Asia. Writing in the South China Morning Post in late January, the analyst Ankit Panda appealed for Indonesia to once again “take its place as first among equals in Southeast Asia …and take a greater interest in collective regional resistance against Chinese revisionism.” Most analysts who argue in favor of a return to a “first among equals” situation reckon Indonesia should take up this mantle. 

It is, after all, one of the world’s largest countries and economies; it is a member of the G20; has historic diplomatic clout within the region; and, importantly, tends to adopt a balanced position between the U.S. and China. And Jakarta, after all, is home to ASEAN’s headquarters. The Indonesian government itself seems to be showing signs that it might be moving in this direction, after drawing up ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific strategy last year, and since December taking an increasingly hostile stance towards Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. However, the coronavirus crisis has put Jakarta on the backfoot; a delayed response, a weak stimulus package, and domestic economic challenges are likely to weigh on any Indonesian initiative to reclaim its former role as ASEAN’s loudest voice. 

Another possibility is that instead of Indonesia, Vietnam takes on the ASEAN leadership mantle of first among equals. 2020 was already expected to be a big year for Hanoi. Just as Vietnam successfully surfed the U.S.-China trade-war wave, reaping enormous sums of fresh foreign direct investment inflows, it appears to be doing the same with the coronavirus crisis. 

The World Bank’s latest forecasts suggest that at the worst-case scenario (and worst-case thinking should be the order of the day), Vietnam’s economic growth will only be 1.5 percent this year, its lowest growth rate in decades. But that is one of the highest growth rates among the Southeast Asian states. Indonesia, by comparison, is expected to see economic contraction of 3.5 percent this year, according to the World Bank’s worst-case scenario. Moreover, economists expect Vietnam’s economy to bounce back faster next year (with growth returning to 7.3 percent, according to ratings agency Fitch) than most of its regional neighbours, including Indonesia. 

Long gone are the days when, in the 1980s, Vietnam was an international pariah, simultaneously fighting off Chinese forces launching border raids and fighting off international criticism of being “the single most repressive government in the world,” as the White House described it in 1983. In the early 1990s, after Hanoi made peace with China and the United States, it embarked on a policy of making as many friends as possible. 

Today, it is an assurgent player in global affairs. This year it holds a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (as does Indonesia), as well as holding the chair of the ASEAN bloc. It was the first Southeast Asian state to sign a defense pact with the European Union (EU) last year, and the second in the region to sign a free-trade agreement with the EU, after Singapore. It has close links to South Korea, with Samsung being the most profitable company in Vietnam, as well as to Japan and Australia. Meanwhile, it maintains old Cold War ties to Russia, one of its biggest arms providers.

Last year, Vietnam was chosen by U.S. President Donald Trump to host his second round of peace talks with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jung-un. It is now, some claim, America’s closest ally in the region, chiefly because it is China’s loudest rival to contested territory in the South China Sea. But Hanoi also maintains close ties with Beijing, a socialist cousin and neighbor, as well as major trading partner. In other words, Vietnam is an international rising star. Although Jakarta led the way in drafting the ASEAN bloc’s own “Indo-Pacific” strategy last year, in recent years its government, led by President Joko Widodo, has preferred to stay out of international affairs and focus on its economic protectionist policies. 

Vietnam also has relations within Southeast Asia that Indonesia does not. One regional schism is between the mainland states, which tend to be more closely-aligned with Beijing, and the maritime states, which still generally sway behind the U.S. Vietnam, however, cuts the divide. Unlike Jakarta, Hanoi has the traction and influence over China’s most loyal allies in the region, Cambodia and Laos. The ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, after all, put the ruling parties of both countries into power in the 1970s (and they remain in power to this day). As such, there would feasibly be less pushback from Phnom Penh and Vientiane if Hanoi tried to involve itself in their foreign policy outlook, compared to if Jakarta tried the same. 

Difficult to overlook, too, is that Vietnam is at the center of every geopolitical issue currently afflicting Southeast Asia. As well as being the loudest opponent of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Vietnam will reportedly be the worst affected country in mainland Southeast Asia if environmental problems related to the Mekong River continue to escalate. This involves dam-building by upstream China and Laos, which has resulted in declining water levels and drought in downstream countries, especially Vietnam. As early as 2014, analysts began describing tensions along the Mekong River the “next South China Sea.” More than that, if America is serious about decoupling even more from China and moving its supply chains out of the country, Vietnam is likely to be the main country where these American operations are moved to. Indonesia, meanwhile, has only a peripheral interest in issues like the Mekong River and America’s relocation of supply chains from China. 

What’s more, Vietnam’s one-party regime may be more suited to building a longer-term ASEAN foreign policy than Indonesia’s rough-and-tumble democracy, in which its main political parties have wildly different views on foreign policy. Just as the Suharto regime, which lasted from 1967 to 1998, provided some stasis and continuity for Indonesia to play its role of first among equals in the region, the same logic of permanence may now apply to Vietnam and its uncontested communist government. 

Yet, even if Vietnam was able to wield an oversized role in setting Southeast Asian foreign policy – and other ASEAN member states allowed it this part – the question still stands as to whether the regional bloc is capable of being reformed. Perhaps the appeal for a new primus inter pares is merely a cri de cœur over a weak organization. Or, perhaps like the EU, having a single oversized actor – like Germany for European economic policy, and France and the UK for foreign policy – is the only way to hold together an ill-defined and ill-reputed regional bloc that, despite its numerous problems, is still of immense utility.   

As ASEAN chair, this could have been the year when Vietnam made a show of taking the regional bloc by the scruff of the next. Clearly, though, its agenda for this year has been waylaid by the coronavirus epidemic. An ASEAN summit supposed to be held this month has been suspended until June. Normalcy is unlikely to return until much later in the year. But that doesn’t mean Vietnam cannot achieve anything. If Hanoi is to claim any achievement, it needs to settle two matters this year – which can always be signed off in 2021. 

First, a proper Code of Conduct with China over tensions in the South China Sea needs to be agreed. According to reports last year, Beijing wants such an agreement to ban signatories from engaging in joint-naval exercises and engaging in joint-oil exploration projects with countries not part of the Code. In effect, that means the likes of Vietnam cannot war-game with the U.S. or search for oil with Russian firms. Sensibly, Southeast Asia governments want to reject any such terms, but that requires a strong and united stance from the ASEAN members – especially concord from Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam, which stands to lose the most if Beijing’s terms are accepted, will no doubt play an active role in opposing them.

Second, there needs to be a renewal of an ASEAN-led approach to the Mekong River.  The Mekong River Commission, a joint project between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam that began in 1995, has been outmaneuvered in recent years by the China-backed (and some claim China-dominated) Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. Analysts say this new initiative takes less seriously concerns that China-funded dams in the mainland and in Laos are destroying riparian economies across the region through bottlenecks and drought, especially in Vietnam, the most downstream country. 

Clearly, a consensual, non-interfering “ASEAN Way” is not working, and a return to a first among equals system appears one solution. It is up to Vietnam now to prove it has what it takes to fill the void. 

David Hutt is a Contributing Editor at The Geopolitics. A European-based political journalist, who reported from Southeast Asia between 2014 and 2019, is Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat, a columnist for Asia Times, and writes for Foreign Policy, Nikkei Asian Review, South China Morning Post, and other international publications. 

Bradley J. Murg is assistant professor of political science and Asian studies at Seattle Pacific University. He is also affiliate professor at the Ellison Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian studies at the Henry M Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and director of research at Future Forum, an independent think-tank in Phnom Penh.