Vietnam's dual foreign policy strategy
Finally, Vietnam has fulfilled its long-held dream of becoming a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (2020-2021) at the same time as the country chairs 10-member Asean. These dual strategies have high diplomatic value in propelling Vietnam to become a leading member in the future Indo-Pacific scheme of things.
Vietnam's National priority this year remains unchanged in the overall effort to diversify its foreign policy engagement with outside powers, big or small. So far Hanoi has done extremely well in the post-Indochina War era, in particular by escaping from being a pawn on the superpowers' chessboard. As such, Vietnamese leaders continue to place a premium on shifting national interests from the role of ideology, which dominated the foreign policy direction until 2008.
In addition, Vietnam's independence and security will hinge on how fast and effectively it can integrate with both the regional and global communities. Hanoi will see through the signing of the world's largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP). Since joining the World Trade Organisation, Vietnam has moved quickly in forging free trade agreements with all blocs, expanding its export markets greatly. It has 17 free trade agreements, the most extensive in Asean. Hanoi is also the only Asean member in the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Community. Viewed in this context, the year of the Gold Rat, 2020, will be an extraordinary time for Vietnam.
It was no surprise at all that Vietnam picked the chair's theme as "Cohesive and Responsive Asean". It has a narrower focus than the previous chair, Thailand, which was more ambitious in pulling in all the possibilities in its year as chair. Thailand has demonstrated the grouping's vitality and convening power. For Vietnam, the stronger Asean becomes under its chairmanship, the better for Vietnam's regional and international profiles.
With the concept of "Cohesive", Vietnam will enhance Asean solidarity, especially when it comes to its relations with external powers. That explains why Vietnam has valued its Asean membership so highly over the past 25 years. During this period Hanoi has shown that it could adjust to the Asean way of doing things without difficulty. As a member of Asean, Vietnam has been able to normalise ties with all major powers and other countries. Internationally, Vietnam has received broad support, winning all bids in international positions, including the latest non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Like the previous chair, Vietnam will continue to promote Asean centrality in dealing with external powers. As a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council, Vietnam can contribute to the ongoing debate on global issues, including climate change, peace-keeping, peace and conflict.
Being the second-largest member of Asean, it is pivotal for the people of Vietnam to appreciate the country's overall linkage with Asean. At the grass-roots level, Vietnam's local communities have a good knowledge of Asean, especially along border areas where intra-Asean trade flourishes. In the coming months, there will be more activity connecting Asean's local communities to bolster people-to-people exchanges.
Hanoi also wants to forge closer links between old and new members. As the most successful new member, Vietnam has numerous lessons that other latecomers could emulate, especially concerning trade and investment strategies. Cohesiveness among old and new members is pivotal in promoting development in all spheres.
Under the banner of "Responsive", the chair aims to enhance Asean's capacity in all fields to better cope with rapid and complicated developments in the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world. Of course, the ongoing US-China trade war is high on the agenda, coupled with the crises on the Korean Peninsula, in the South China Sea, and in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Other non-traditional security issues will be tackled as well, such as the impact of the 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution), and eradication of marine debris.
Indeed, these two terms, coherence and responsive, are connected. A cohesive Asean will be a good foundation for a responsive Asean. Being responsive will be a good way for Asean to be more cohesive. In a nutshell, Hanoi would like to see a more dynamic Asean that can speak in one voice and make faster decisions in responding to emergencies or any flare-up between Asean members and outside powers.
As chair, Vietnam expects that the world's heavyweight leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the Asean-related summits along with invited guests. Mr Trump has good reasons to accommodate the chair's invitation. After all, Vietnam will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of US-Vietnam relations.
He also has to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. However, Mr Trump's year-end visit would also link to his invitation for all Asean leaders to attend a special summit in the US within the first quarter. Asean has yet to decide to go before or after the April summit in Da Nang.
From Washington's perspective, Vietnam comes out on top as one of the most valued partners for the US. In the age of US-China strategic competition, Vietnam's regional profile and position carries diplomatic weight.
As a former member of the now-defunct Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), Vietnam's ties with Russia remain solid. It will be worthy to note how Vietnam navigates its complex and multi-layered relations with all the great powers, including China, in the same platform. In Thailand, during the Asean-related summits, Russia's profile and voice were conspicuously absent.
Vietnam has mapped out at least 300 related meetings under its chairmanship. When the first Asean ministerial retreat takes place on Jan 16-17 in Nha Trang, Vietnam's agenda as chair will be approved in consultation with its Asean colleagues.
Vietnam has already informed other Asean members of the chair's five priorities: strengthening Asean's active role and contribution to the maintenance of regional peace; security and stability; promoting regional connectivity; improve adaptability and capitalising on Industry 4.0; enhancing communal awareness and Asean identity; intensifying partnerships for peace and sustainable development; and finally, improving the efficiency of Asean's operational apparatus.
Vietnam's agenda is clearly to try to ensure consistency and continuity from the previous chair, especially on the issues related to sustainable development and connectivity, which have already become a new template for accelerated intra-Asean cooperation.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs