Vietnam took over the chairmanship of ASEAN from Thailand in November 2019, and outlined the motto for the ASEAN meetings in 2020 to be ‘cohesive and responsive’. This was meant to bring about more consensus and unity with regard to initiatives such as promoting internal strength of the organisation, developing economic connectivity and integration as well as revisiting the ASEAN values and identities in the context of new emerging challenges. Vietnam took the chairmanship of ASEAN when the organisation was facing challenges with regard to peace and security, climate change affects, and also the need for outlining the future for developing the region as an ASEAN community.
In the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc speech given in January 2020, he clearly outlined that the organisation needs to work on community, capacity, identity and also developing operational efficiency of the organisation. The main theme of the organisation was to bring about ASEAN community spirit. Over the period of eleven months ASEAN has worked strongly with regard to developing better relationship with dialogue partners including European Union, China and India as well as coordinating meetings between ASEAN and Japan, most of them in online mode.
Interestingly, the agenda for the year 2020 has been outlined for ASEAN under the Vietnam chairmanship and there were challenges with regard to addressing issues related to economic integration and also developing common protocols about public health emergencies, and sharing of information related to the countermeasures against COVID- 19. In fact, during the ASEAN senior officials meeting many issues which have been discussed in the past have been highlighted and a common consensus was reached. During the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting which was held in September 2020, it was highlighted that there is a need for reinforcing the ASEAN community vision of the year 2020, and buttressing ASEAN centrality in new multilateral formulations in the region, clearly alluding to the Indo-Pacific construct.
Vietnam has effectively brought about comprehensive assessment of the institutional mechanisms within the organisation, and also reviewed the documents with regard to ASEAN community blueprints. The most important aspect which has been highlighted by Vietnam has been developing collective effort against the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishing joint groups related to public health emergencies. The challenges for the post COVID-19 recovery have already been considered by the ASEAN organisation and it was suggested that the organisation should undertake comprehensive recovery framework as well as a time bound implementation plan. This highlighted the need for research and joint production, and distribution of vaccines through cold chain supply networks so that the larger population of the Southeast Asia could be protected from this pandemic in future.
The major consideration which have been addressed by Hanoi has been in the field of trade facilitation and doing away with unnecessary non-tariff measures so that supply resilience as well as new challenges such as food security, financial stability and issues related to energy can be addressed in a cohesive way.
One of the earliest meetings which was conducted by Vietnam has been in the field of ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) organised at Laos which acknowledged the gravity of the situation in the COVID-19 phase, and stated that ASEAN solidarity and unity is necessary for preventing and making countermeasures against this pandemic. This meeting undertook special measures such as emergency operations centre and also taking necessary cohesive joint actions related to assistance, information and sharing of best practices. Outlining the need for cooperation with ASEAN dialogue partners, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and related bodies, highlighted the adeptness of Vietnam in understanding the problems with regard to pandemics and bringing about consensus on these issues.
Even before ACC meetings when the foreign ministers retreat was held in January 2020, the issues of the stability and prosperity as well as addressing the emerging challenges in the South China Sea was addressed without any biases. Even though one of the biggest handicaps which was faced by Vietnam during the whole year has been conduct of online conferences and developing understanding among ASEAN member states but Vietnam very tactfully addressed the issue of 4th industry revolution in the meetings, and how it is going to change the economic landscape of the region. It also highlighted the relevance of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and exuded confidence that many other non-regional countries will be accepting the TAC.
Major initiatives which have been taken by the Vietnam under the chairmanship included better cooperation on transnational crime, public security and coordination among the ASEAN law enforcement agencies. Recognizing the need for better financial architecture in the Southeast Asia, Hanoi has brought about dialogue between financial institutions and banking sectors in Southeast Asia, and taking a cue from G-20 summits, it also addressed that there is a need for developing better organised financial architecture which can bring about financial stability.
One must acknowledge the fact that despite lot of constraints because of the online meetings, Vietnam was still able to get approval of more than 42 documents during the September meeting of the ASEAN foreign ministers. The one interesting part was to bring about more activities and responsibilities to the ASEAN Regional Forum under the Hanoi Plan of Action -II (2020-2025). One of the major highlights has been discussing the South China Sea, and referring to it as East Sea during the ministerial meetings.
The forthcoming 37th ASEAN summit meeting would be highlighting the challenges that the region faces in terms of ASEAN centrality, bringing about ASEAN unity and resilience as well as promoting trust among the members. The issue of Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea /East Sea needs to be resolved so that China can be brought to the table and sign on the compliant mechanisms related to the East Sea. It also needs to be brought to the attention that economic recovery within ASEAN and addressing the non-traditional challenges such as terrorism, natural disasters, catastrophes, climate change as well as increasing transnational crime need cooperation at regional level, and also promote intra organisational understanding so that these challenges need to be addressed on a priority basis. Now when there are increasing US China tensions in the South China Sea/East Sea as well as the problems with regard to COVID-19 pandemic, the discussions will be intense and therefore bringing about consensus would be a difficult job. Further the challenge of holding this meeting in person would require a lot of logistical support and critical thinking so that public health and sanitation are not compromised.
The task for Vietnam would be cut out for the forthcoming ASEAN summit meeting. It needs to be seen how the region looks into the pandemics, the floods and other natural disasters among the member countries while at the same time developing standard operating procedures and cooperative mechanisms so that citizens in Southeast Asian countries can be protected. Vietnam is expected to take the lead with regard to outlining the utility of TAC, undertaking preparations with regard to granting development partnership to European nations such as France and Italy well at the same time bringing Cuba and Columbia as the new signatory to the TAC. Many of the issues which have been addressed in the previous meetings need to be reinforced in the context of developing trust, inclusive, open and rule-based regional security architecture. It would be prudent to note the suggestions which will be coming from the dialogue partners and also many other agencies which are involved in the process of maintaining of security and stability as well as the agenda for developing the ASEAN community in future.