The Indo-Pacific is a dynamic concept that has come into the picture of great power politics. In the last two decades, an Indo-Pacific identity is increasingly becoming synonymous to a single maritime construct. Countries in the region are driven by geo-economic and geo-political interests with a constant presence of external payers. Due to its strategic relevance, China is pushing forwards its expansionist agenda by striking a historical chord and threatening interests of smaller states in the region. Vietnam has been one of the victims as well as the one to stand up against China’s advances.
According to realist theory in international relations scholarship, a country can be categorized as a middle power depending upon a state’s military strength, economic capabilities, and geostrategic position. Due to the power gap, diplomacy as a foreign policy tool is used often to participate in international politics and exert influence among regional players. Vietnam has taken charge of ASEAN Chairmanship three times since its entry and been part of significant regional building mechanisms to strengthen its commitment towards three pillars of ASEAN community. Its strategic location, growing economic and military strength makes Vietnam an important player in the region. This article makes a case for Vietnam as a rising middle power in the region that has the potential to play a prominent role in Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of its growing economy, interpersonal relations, leadership role in ASEAN and regional security order amidst escalating Chinese threat.
Leading the ASEAN Economy
In the aftermath of Doi Moi reforms, Vietnam focused on the development of a multi-sector economy. In 1989, it exported rice for the first time and today is the 4th largest rice exporter in the world. In the aftermath of Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, the country registered a strong 8.5% GDP growth rate. In 2008 it was removed from the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) and since then has been registering a consistent growth rate above 5%.
The period between 2000-2019 has seen consistent 5.5% plus growth with 6.5-7% growth in the last five years. Among ASEAN states, Vietnam had the fourth highest annual average growth rate in the 21st century, above ASEAN’s average 5.3%. In 2019, Vietnam had the second highest GDP growth rate i.e. 7% among the ten states closely following Cambodia’s 7.1%.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the world economy and shattered growth targets for the year 2020. According to recent estimates by Asian Development Bank for the year 2020, the growth projections remain at a negative 3.8% for Southeast Asia and it is preparing for an L-shaped recovery. Meanwhile, Vietnam is among the only three countries in the region to have a positive growth rate of 1.8% along with Myanmar and Brunei. In fact, Vietnam will be one of the few countries in developing economies of Asia to have a positive GDP growth rate amidst the ongoing crisis. Hanoi is targeting a growth rate of 6.5% this year.
International trade and investment has become a key factor in the region’s economic integration. According to ASEAN Key Figures 2020, intra-ASEAN trade holds the largest share in total ASEAN trade at 22.5%. In 2019, Vietnam was the third largest exporter (17.3%) and importer (17%) in the region. Over the last decade, the country has become one of the manufacturing hubs in the region with its labour and industrial policies. Vietnam is ranked 3rd in shares of manufacturing products to total exports (%) by ASEAN Member States, growing from 46.8% in 2006 to 86.4% in 2019. It also holds the largest manufacturing shares in imports of goods in 2019 at 84%. In context of FDI inflow in 2019, Vietnam is the third largest recipient among ASEAN states amounting approx. US$16.12 billion.
Political Integration and ASEAN Leadership
Post 1995, Vietnam witnessed major landmarks in international integration. First, it signed an FTA with the US in 2001 and later associated with all 12 FTAs that Vietnamese exporters can take advantage of including ASEAN plus FTAs. Second, it joined the WTO in 2007 that enhanced the country’s economic interests making it a significant player in the global economy. The pre and post 2007 share of exports of goods and services to GDP was 67% and 106% respectively. Third, it was elected as a non-permanent member in UNSC for the term 2008-09 and acted as the council’s President during the term.
Vietnam has improved its bilateral ties with countries beyond ASEAN. In February 2020, Vietnam sealed the deal with Europe on the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EUVFTA). The agreement is said to bring a significant impact on exporting firms, foreign investors, and consumers in Vietnam. It has strived forward to foster ties with Japan, India and Australia along with close ties with US, all four associated with the QUAD bloc. In 2018, it signed a new strategic partnership with Australia and with India the country shares a comprehensive strategic partnership. Both the countries have had joint naval exercises as well. With Japan they share strategic links in the last five years. It was the destination for Japanese PM Suga’s maiden foreign visit as was the case with his predecessor Shinzo Abe. In the role of ASEAN chair, the country stands ready to be the effective bridge to connect the ASEAN with countries such as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Albania.
One important aspect of Vietnam’s political rise is its balancing act against China and the USA. Both have historical associations with Vietnam that brought ill-will to the country and both are the two most important international partners in present times. The US is Vietnam’s largest export market with a share of 23% followed by China at 15.6%. In terms of imports, Vietnam is heavily dependent on China with a share of 29% whereas the US is far below the list with a mere 5.6%. By numbers, China remains the largest trading partner with an annual trade of US$116 billion between the two countries in 2019 followed by the US at US$75.3 billion. While Vietnam maintains a trade surplus with US, there exists a trade deficit with China.
In the on-going tussle in world politics between existing superpower USA and a rising revisionist power China, ASEAN states have had a varied response. Cambodia and Laos are close allies of China while Singapore and Indonesia maintain proximity to the US. The diametrically opposite stance has invited trouble in the ASEAN bloc as Singapore and Cambodia recently exchanged a round of accusations against each other. Vietnam has adopted a different approach and is upholding the principle of ASEAN neutrality. Many IR scholars argue that Vietnam is exercising hedging against China with USA, a practice of mixing both cooperation and distance. Goh defines Vietnam’s hedging strategy as a form of “triangular politics” between Vietnam, China and the United States.
Vietnam’s political integration is incomplete without mentioning the role it plays in ASEAN.
ASEAN is home to about 650 million people, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.2 trillion and trade value exceeding $2.8 trillion. Vietnam has the third largest population, fourth largest area among ASEAN countries and an important geographic and economic position in Southeast Asia. Prior to joining ASEAN, Vietnam had a rather negative perception of the group in the late 1970’s for its indifference towards individual member states political structures and independent foreign policies. Vietnam’s entry into the ASEAN had two direct implications. First, it became the first country from the Indochina region to be a member of ASEAN and paved the way for Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar taking the organization to its present strength of ten. Second, ASEAN became the de facto player to uphold peace and stability in a region that has had a bloody Cold War history.
In 1998, Vietnam hosted the 6th ASEAN summit for the first time in the backdrop of Asian financial crisis that had devastated Southeast Asian economies. Under Vietnam’s chairmanship, the Hanoi Action Plan was adopted to enforce ASEAN Vision 2020. In 2010, Vietnam became the Chair for the second time of the 16th Summit. The year was difficult in particular due to aftershocks of 2008-09 global financial crises. It played a pivotal role in the roadmap for building the ASEAN Community 2015. Vietnam is credited with drawing consensus on entry of the US and Russia in the East Asia Summit, expanding the ASEAN plus Three (APT) institution into ASEAN + 8. The first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) was inaugurated under Hanoi’s chairmanship strengthening defence and security cooperation between ASEAN and its eight dialogue partners. It was also the year when ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). It was an important step towards “development of policies, programmes, and innovative strategies to promote and protect the rights of women and children to complement the building of the ASEAN Community”. It was also involved in building the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
2020 marked an important milestone when Vietnam assumed the rotating Chair of ASEAN for the third time. July 28th marked Vietnam’s 25 years of ASEAN membership. On the occasion Ambassador Tran Duc Binh, Head of Vietnam’s delegation to ASEAN said, “Vietnam is one of the countries recording highest results in implementing the master plan on building the ASEAN Community. Vietnam has worked to strengthen unity and solidarity in ASEAN and elevate ASEAN’s central role in maintaining regional cooperation, peace, and stability.”
2020 has been an extraordinary year for countries around the world. In the wake of the pandemic, Vietnam has played a significant role in virtual diplomacy and formulated a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, a Regional Reserve for Medical Supplies, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on Public Health Emergencies, and a Post-COVID-19 Recovery Plan. At a domestic level, it is one of the very few countries to successfully curb the spread of the virus. Vietnam recorded its first COVID-19 death as late as 31st July 2020, and till now (April 2021) has registered 2,833 cases and 35 deaths, one of the lowest in the world. The most notable achievement this year has been the signing of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the 15-member free trade agreement making it the largest regional trading bloc in the world. Vietnam also holds the responsibility of non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2020-2021 term elected by 192/193 votes. President and Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said that the election is an “important recognition” of Vietnam’s roles and contributions to global and regional affairs, showing its increased position and credibility.
In the Asia Power Index 2020 conducted by Lowy Institute, Vietnam ranks 12th out of 26 countries of Asia-Pacific and 5th among ASEAN countries. While Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia stand ahead in the power index, all of them have observed a negative trend and lost out points except Thailand that remained unchanged as compared to last edition. Vietnam is the only country among ASEAN states to observe a positive trend and gained 1.3 points since last year. One of the indicators is Diplomatic influence that measures the ‘extent and standing of a state’s or territories foreign relations’ and Vietnam has gained the maximum points (+6) out of all countries. Its performance in other indicators is mentioned below.
Vietnam also holds a positive score in the power gap category that indicates that the country exerts more influence in the region than expected given its available resources.
Table 1: Vietnam’s Performance in Asia Power Index 2020
Source: Asia Power Index 2020
On the Security Front
Vietnam’s policy with respect to security in the region assesses the global situation which has been rapidly evolving into a multipolar order. South China Sea or what is called East Sea in Vietnam has been a long-standing issue in maritime security and the larger Indo-Pacific space. The dispute goes back to China’s claim to the entire South China Sea on the basis of its historic nine-dash line that predates the emergence of post-colonial sovereign states of Asia. The claims evolved into aggressive actions by the Chinese through buildup of artificial islands and growing military infrastructure that threatens the sovereignty of littoral states. Due to the geo-economic importance of the sea, China has begun to endanger commercial operations of smaller states in their respective economic zones mainly Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei, reaching as far as Indonesia’s Natuna Sea. Large hydrocarbon reserves have been found in regions like Vanguard Bank and The Ca Voi Xanh (Blue Whale) gas field that lie just 50 miles off Vietnamese coast. Vietnamese fishing industry is also threatened due to Chinese coast guard presence that has previously unilaterally banned fishing activity in the region. In 2014, a Vietnamese fishing vessel 90152 was sunk by Chinese maritime surveillance vessel that sparked national outrage in the country and led to anti-China riots. In April this year, a Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dishi 8 encroached Vietnam’s resource-rich territorial waters near Paracel Islands, called Hoang Sa in Vietnam.
Vietnam has grown militarily, its defense spending increasing from 2.23 percent of GDP in 2010 to 2.36 percent in 2018and engaged with countries including Russia, USA, India, Australia and Japan strategically. On both the national level as well as the regional level, it has reiterated the commitment towards 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for any territorial rights claimed by any country in South China Sea. Vietnam helped build the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea in 2002 and negotiations are on between ASEAN and China over an upgraded Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Cooperation with external players mainly the US for security reasons is one approach taken by the country. Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said during ASEAN-US virtual summit, “We welcome the U.S.’s constructive and responsive contributions to Asean’s efforts to maintain the peace, stability and developments in the South China Sea.”On November 25, 2019, Vietnam released a new Defense White Paper, reiterating the “Three No’s” defense policy – no alliances, no foreign bases and no aligning with a second country against a third. However, its participation within the ‘QUAD Plus’ framework that is an extension of QUAD along with with New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea is seen by some as an alliance against rising China. Vietnam’s strategic position for the QUAD and reiteration of free and open, rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific is the current approach to set a status quo in the South China Sea for its resource interests. The 2018 inauguration of Paracel Islands Museum in Da Nangand the indication to take the legal route through legal arbitration, similar to the case won by Philippines in 2016 is how Vietnam is standing up for bullying behaviour against smaller states in the region.
In Vietnamese there is an old saying: ‘A single tree cannot make a forest’. Since the 21st century, Vietnam’s economic and political rise has been complementary to the rise of ASEAN. Foreign direct investment (FDI) and exports played an increasingly important role in Vietnam’s economic success while significant political presence in international politics is the world’s acknowledgment of its leadership role in the ASEAN and demonstration of its importance in the Indo-Pacific region.Lack of a united ASEAN front to the South China Sea issue remains one of the biggest challenges for the country. As a non-permanent member, Vietnam needs to work as a bridge between the ASEAN and UN. For a dynamic regional institution and the emerging maritime-geopolitical construct of Indo-Pacific, Vietnam needs to leverage its position and role to realize ‘peace and stability of the region’ in its truest sense.
Vietnam’s Role in ASEAN 2021 meetings
Taking on from the meetings held under the rubric of ASEAN chairmanship of Vietnam in the year 2020, the country coordinator for Russia in ASEAN, Indonesia conducted the meeting which reaffirmed the strategic partnership between ASEAN and Russia in January 2021. Under the meeting it was decided that the two sides need to address the implications of COVID -19 and accelerating the recovery from economic and social point of view across the region. The basis of meeting was the new ASEAN Russia comprehensive plan of action for the next four years (2021-2025), and discuss its impact related to political and economic security, industry, science and technology, smart cities, health cooperation, and increasing people to people contacts. Vietnam during its chairmanship has been proactive in developing meaningful engagement between ASEAN and Russia as well as between other dialogue partners.
Russia supported ASEAN centrality in organisational architecture, but a need was felt for further engaging Russia in the regional dynamics. Within January 2021 itself issues related to ASEAN Economic Community were discussed through the video conference. Given the fact that the ASEAN community blueprints have been discussed as well as the template for Asian comprehensive recovery framework has been out lined last year, the meeting as expected deliberated on issues related to communication and information technology, E-Commerce, minerals, science and technology, and innovation. Areas which have been highlighted during the ASEAN meetings last year has been related to the 4th industrial revolution and working out plan of action. ASEAN economies have been impacted by limited domestic demand and therefore recovery of the value chains suffered because of the pandemic. There is a need for post pandemic economic support.
ASEAN faced the biggest challenge with the change of government in Myanmar when military junta took over which has been criticised at global level. There have been calls at international level to address this at the regional organisational level and undertake effective measures so that the military junta should cede power to the democratically elected government in Myanmar. This was seen as a challenge to the ASEAN as military government had taken repressive measures with more than 800 people killed since the military coup. ASEAN took cognizance of the fact that the changes in Myanmar would be detrimental to its cohesive and centrality as well as it would challenge the authority that the ASEAN has in terms of a regional organization. It issued a statement seeking peace and dialogue among parties. In February 2021a meeting was held related to minerals exploitation and developing ASEAN minerals cooperation action plan and its effective implementation. It has been felt that with the ongoing 4th industrial revolution in ASEAN, the demand for critical minerals would rise exponentially. The meeting also commissioned a study which is expected to submit its report by the end of this year.
In the March 2021 ASEAN socio- cultural committee has expressed strong support to Brunei’s chairmanship which espouses for better care, effective preparations, and prosperity in the region. Taking note of the earlier decisions which have been taken during the ASEAN 2020 meetings, the new chair highlighted various proposals which include developing regional responses to emergencies and disasters, youth academy programme, establishing the ASEAN climate change centre, and developing gender understanding among the people of the region. By the end of March, ASEAN India meeting was also held through the video conference in which it was buttressed that there is a need for effective implementation of the new plan of action for 2021- 2025. Stress was laid about the execution of ASEAN-India Fund, ASEAN- India Green Fund and a need was felt to proactively implement all these programmes under the ASEAN India project management. India has contributed USD 1 million to the COVID 19 fund which was appreciated, and views were shared regarding cooperation in medicine, developing vaccines, and cheap pharmaceutical products.
Under the chairmanship of Vietnam last year, it was suggested that ASEAN should prepare for the 4th industrial revolution in a more cohesive way. It was expressed that with the coming of digital economy and new innovations there is a need for comprehensive consolidated strategy which should prepare the region towards the 4th industrial revolution. It suggested that to achieve such a manufacturing revolution there is need for a better regulatory environment, global competitive standards, developing skills and capacity at the same time. The consultative meetings which were held in the last week of April, accepted that there is need for collaborative frameworks, creating the ecosystem which is required for achieving such a goal.
In early May ASEAN discussed issues related toCOVID-19 impact, transformation of global value chains and how the organization should accept the post recovery phenomenon for the long term. The workshop also addressed the hindrances about global value chain and what exactly are the opportunities which will emerge in the post pandemic recovery. It was suggested that there is need for developing critical infrastructure, addressing gaps in connectivity, and seriously undertaking measures for human resource development. What is surprising this year is the fact that ASEAN failed to raise issues related to the South China Sea very vociferously and how China has been asserting its maritime claims in the region. Even though there have been constrained statements in this regard.
Vietnam, on its part, has been proactively engaging ASEAN dialogue partners -Japan, India, Russia and the US in developing long term strategic partnership, and the new Vietnamese foreign minister updated the developments in South China Sea. ASEAN as an organization has been engaging the new partners such as Chile and Cuba. Vietnam has also been drawing attention to the activities of numerous Chinese vessels in Ba Dau(Whitsun reef ) and it was stated by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam that the activities of the Chinese vessels violate Vietnam sovereignty and the provisions of the UNCLOS as it goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea(DOC). At the international level during the press conference which was conducted in April 2021 on the issue of South China Sea, Vietnam foreign office clearly remarked that all countries should maintain peace and stability as well as cooperation in the South China Sea and must comply with the international law.
All the discussions which happen this year were a carryover from the discussions which were held in November 2020, and it means that the issue related to politico-security and socio-cultural communities would gain more momentum in coming years. The ASEAN meetings in 2020 has laid out the template and suggested new ideas which would bring the ASEAN economies together and develop blueprint for E-commerce, digital economy, digital connectivity, promoting finance, trade and investment in the region. The issues and the engagement with dialogue partners is expected to start in May 2021 and Brunei will have to undertake effective measures so that the momentum of ASEAN discussions is maintained.
Is Quad 2.0 transforming into a Pentad?
The reinvigoration of Quad Security Dialogue as Quad 2.0 including US, Japan, and Australia along with India during the 12th East Asia Summit in November 2017 has been appreciated and acknowledged by several countries including Germany, France, and Britain. It has been expressed from these countries that such a concert of the major democracies would provide peace, security and help in maintaining order and harmony in the region. Quad 2.0 has been gaining strength with the Foreign ministers meeting in February 2021 followed with Summit level meeting (online) in March 2021 between the leaders of the four countries -India, US, Japan, and Australia.
In 2017, during the India-France Strategic Dialogue, the French senior officials have hinted that they would like to explore possibility regarding collaboration with the Quad members about joining the initiative. The French side has clearly mentioned that given the strength and the objective of the Quad, France would like to join the initiative with the common consensus of the other four partners.
Given the fact that India is averse to any idea of an Asian NATO, therefore France, India and Australia have created a new minilateral which would develop security structures and promote maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. In September 2020 during the foreign Secretary level dialogue between three countries issues such as Maritime Security, Blue Economy, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), and Protection of Marine Global Commons were discussed. The maritime global commons and the blue economy are the two things along with maritime security which allude to the fact that France wants Quad by its side to protect its resources. Deliberating on the objectives and agenda of the Quad, France recently concluded joint exercise with the Quad members in April 2021. The exercises were conducted in the eastern Indian Ocean and were held for three days.
India has been operating Rafale fighter jets (14 are now in service with Indian air force) and plans to procure two squadrons (about 36) of these jets while the three Scorpene submarines have already been commissioned with the Indian navy. This structural defence cooperation between India and France has also been seen in the context of India’s’ entry into the Indian Ocean Commission (an intergovernmental group of island nations- Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion islands, Mauritius, and Seychelles, dealing with maritime governance) as an observer, and India and France maritime surveillance sorties from Reunion islands from Reunion Islands. India benefits from France entry into the Quad as it would enhance extensive naval presence and add more friendly ports into the Quad network. France has expressed concerns related to China’s search for marine resources and seabed minerals near its Indian Ocean territories.
France has been looking into an agreement with Quad members for regular joint exercises and entering into a logistics supply agreement that India has signed with US and both Japan and Australia already have the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA).India and France have signed reciprocal logistics support which is not comprehensive but compliments the requirements from both sides. During the visit of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to India in November 2017, the French Minister welcomed the “a free, open, prosperous and inclusive” Indo-Pacific and sated that it would servelong-term global interests but added that this concert of democracies should be open and inclusive citing that such an initiative should welcome other democracies.
Following the visit of the French Minister, it has been explored that given few Francophone countries in Eastern Africa, the logistics and other related support can be procured from the willing countries. India has set up a grid of coastal surveillance radars in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Madagascar. France has military assets in Mayotte, besides military bases in UAE and Djibouti, and it has proposed a wide network of radars which can be integrated with other coastal surveillance radars so that not only white shipping, but rogue ships can also be monitored.
France has expressed interest in developing synergies and cooperative structure which should assimilate itself with the larger objectives of the Quad and is looking for maintaining peace and security as well as protecting the marine resources in the Indian Ocean as China has also been exploring for seabed resources near the Madagascar region. The islands that are of interest and can benefit from the Pentad (with France as new entrant) as this would provide security to its islands namely Reunion, Mayotte, French Southern and Antarctic Lands which includes Île Amsterdam, Crozet Islands, Kerguelen Islands, Île Saint-Paul and other scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bassas da India, Europa Island, Banc du Geyser, and Glorioso Islands, largely uninhabited islands.
Few of these islands can support military structures and Quad countries can use its facilities in and around the Indian Ocean as well as certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. In such a context, France has proposed in the past for holding bilateral and trilateral (with Australia and India) naval and coast guard exercises. The increasing bon homie between Quad members and France serves three basic purposes. Firstly, it involves the French navy in the Indian Ocean and helps in monitoring western Indian Ocean. Secondly, the number of island territories that France had both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific provides unique coverage and support systems. Thirdly, the trilateral between Australia, India, and France (India and Australia are two Quad members) shows that even though it is not very profoundly expressed but the blueprint is already created for including France to make it a Pentad.
ASEAN’s Five Point Consensus: A Solution to Crisis in Myanmar?
It is a glimmer of hope amidst an ongoing military crackdown in Myanmar that the member countries of ASEAN have been convened in Jakarta to discuss the potential of a resolution of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. The meeting was conspicuous in its absence of any representative of Myanmar people. However, it has reached an interim five point consensus on how to resolve the impasse in Myanmar. This article assesses the efficacy of the consensus in ameliorating the ever deteriorating situation in Myanmar.
The Myanmar junta spearheaded by General Min Aung Hlaing is nearing its 3 month hold of power amidst continuing backlash from citizens and civil societies alike. Using the irregularities and widespread voting fraud of November election as a pretext to usurp the power, the Myanmar junta has taken over the country which is reminiscent of the country’s protracted military rule.
The junta has squelched all of the opposition in its bid to prolong the power hold. The junta has indiscriminately detained the protesters. The number of detainees climbed to 3,389. Security forces have deployed live ammunition to quell the uprising, killing more than 740 people in brutal crackdowns, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Besides, the junta has also halted communications across the country by imposing a nightly internet shutdown for 70 consecutive days.
Amidst this backdrop, the regional organization of south-east Asia, ASEAN has convened a meeting to resolve the situation in Myanmar. This is the first in-person meeting since the onset of covid-19 pandemic and this is also the first foreign visit of junta Chief General Min Aung Hlaing. The ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting was convened at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, and was chaired by the Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In a statement announced by ASEANs chair, the Sultan of Brunei, the leaders in their five-point consensus called for 1) the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar; 2) constructive dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people; 3) mediation to be facilitated by an envoy of ASEAN’s chair, with the assistance of the secretary-general; 4) humanitarian assistance provided by ASEAN’s AHA Centre and 5) a visit by the special envoy and delegation to Myanmar to meet all parties concerned
Although the statement by the ASEAN and its five point consensus is encouraging amidst such inflammatory situation in Myanmar, it leaves much to be desired. There are many blatant shortcomings of the meeting and the subsequent statement it put forth. Firstly, there was no mention of the prisoners both political and civilian which has been detained by the junta since February. While they had mentioned that the association has “heard the calls”, it is at best quite ambiguous selection of words in an attempt to evade the issue of political prisoners. Secondly, the meeting wasn’t representative enough. While chief of Myanmar military attended the meeting, there was no representative of Myanmar civilian of newly fashioned parallel government namely National Unity Government (NUG). Therefore, the decision that ASEAN reached run the risk of not reflecting the ground realities of Myanmar. Beside some doubts are being raised given ASEAN’s abysmal record of implementing such lofty goals. History abounds with numerous precedents where ASEAN purported to take firm actions but was futile due to its unique organizational structure and lack of good-will. It remains to be seen whether ASEAN can bring about any decisive solution to Myanmar impasse.
Although an epitome of regionalism as evidenced by deepening economic cooperation between the countries, ASEAN’s success in political stability is rather limited. Part of the reasons for lack of political involvement can be attributed to its cornerstone principle of non-interference which forbids any nation to interfere the internal affairs of other countries.
However, in a world marked by globalization where national, regional and global has been blurred and where any incidents in one nation can have spill over effect in other countries of the region. The potentiality of an essentially national incident to disrupt the stability of the region is well documented. Particularly, it requires no special mention that given the geopolitical importance of Myanmar, stability in the south-east Asian region hinges on the stability and good governance in Myanmar. Besides, economic cooperation presupposes a semblance of stability which is hindered if good governance can’t be assured.
Therefore, ASEAN shouldn’t remain aloof from its geopolitical calling since the situation in Myanmar isn’t an internal affair any more and has transcended Myanmar. The Rohingya refugee crisis which is the manifestation of Myanmar military hawkish posture serves as a shuddering reminder to world community. The inability to forestall any crisis can have devastating consequences for the whole region and can disrupt the security in the region.
If ASEAN’s firm action can’t be ensured, the present imbroglio can ensue more such refugee crisis given the assortment of ethnic communities that reside in Myanmar and their apparent hostility and protracted conflict with the junta. Therefore, ASEAN can’t trade the security and stability of broader region under the pretext of its provincial non-interference norm. A bold and effective action by ASEAN is the crying need of the time rather than lukewarm condemnations which doesn’t serve much purpose. Moreover, ASEAN should come out of its record of advancing platitudes and nostrums in response to pressing political issues and rather should take decisive action to solve the quagmire in Myanmar.
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