Vietnam's homework before Nha Trang

Vietnam's homework before Nha Trang

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha hands a gavel — the symbol of the Asean chairmanship — to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the end of the 35th Asean Summit. (Patipat Janthong)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha hands a gavel — the symbol of the Asean chairmanship — to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the end of the 35th Asean Summit. (Patipat Janthong)

The latest development in the Middle East and the status of President Donald Trump's invitation for a special summit with Asean leaders in the US will top the agenda of the first foreign ministers' retreat in Nha Trang this week.

The two-day informal meeting on Jan 16-17 will set the agenda and tone of Vietnam's chairmanship for 2020 and Asean in general. This is an extraordinary year for the chair, as it will commemorate the 25th anniversary of its relations with Asean and the US simultaneously. Furthermore, Vietnam is also serving a two-year term (2020-2021) as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

At the seaside resort, Asean leaders will set the bloc's general direction on a broad range of issues. However, apart from the Trump invitation, there are other important topics which urgently need to be decided on -- such as the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November at the RCEP summit and the operationalisation of Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which was announced last July.

In Bangkok last November, Mr Trump dispatched a non-cabinet and low-level official to take part in the Asean-related summits. It was a big slap in Asean's face because in Asean's 52-year history, no dialogue partners had ever shown such disrespect. But the Thai host and its Asean colleagues were civil and mature enough to go ahead with the scheduled summits. At the time, some members preferred either to boycott or downgrade the meeting to a senior official level. However, the Thai chair decided to use the troika formula, comprising the leaders from past, present and the country coordinator of Asean-US relations, which turned out well.

At issue today is Washington's possible reactions to the Asean leaders' decision over Mr Trump's proposed invitation. Judging from their ongoing informal discussion, it does not look good. Quite a few members would like to stick to the same troika formula for the 2nd Asean-US special summit. When Mr Trump invited the Asean leaders, it was done in a very hush-hush manner through a letter without any personal touch. When former President Barack Obama invited Asean leaders for the first Asean-US special summit at Sunnylands, California back in February 2016, he personally invited them face-to-face during a summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2015. All Asean leaders agreed instantaneously to attend the special summit without any conditions.

It is highly possible that Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will not fly to the US alongside their colleagues.

Therefore, in Nha Trang, Vietnam has to decide what would be the appropriate Asean representation. The leaders from CLMVT (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand) countries have indicated that they would participate in the special summit with Mr Trump.

After the modality of their visit is agreed upon, the next step is to locate the right time to go -- should it be before or after the upcoming 36th Asean summit, which has been fixed for mid-April in Danang? The White House has yet to inform Asean of the summit's date and venue. With the Trump impeachment effort ongoing and the country reeling to deal with the aftermath of the assassination of Major Gen Qassim Soleimani, Mr Trump's schedules have suddenly become tighter.

Afterwards, they still have to work on a common agenda for their discussion. Since Mr Trump became president in 2017, fortunately, the US-Asean relations have remained the same. During the past three years, Mr Trump tried successfully to dismantle Mr Obama's diplomatic legacies on various issues by withdrawing the US from the climate change accord, the Trans Pacific partnership and other international commitments and obligations. But Mr Obama's policies on Asean have been largely left unscathed. Both the Asean chair and Laos, as the coordinator of Asean-US ties, will have a tough job to prepare and produce a fruitful summit.

Finally, both sides have to agree on the substance in the joint statement at the end of their summit. It must be meaningful and contain new elements beyond the Sunnylands Declaration, which covered Asean-US ties rather comprehensively. The 17-point document reflects the close Asean-US ties under the Obama administration.

An equally important issue is India's membership in the RCEP. New Delhi's recalcitrance has caused both heartache and headache for Asean leaders as they expected India's full cooperation after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's landslide election in May. The next 10-month would be crucial to determine if New Delhi is in or out of the RCEP. Since all 16 members have agreed on the 20 chapters governing the whole gamut of issues under the RCEP, it remains to be seen how India can overcome its domestic obstacles. For the time being, Japan, which has been the biggest supporter of India's joining the RCEP, plans to provide necessary assistance and aid to cushion the negative impacts of the RCEP.

The AOIP's is also on the agenda. Now that the AOIP has been recognised by all key players in the Indo-Pacific region, Asean needs to operationalise the protocol to ensure the sustainability of its proposed projects. Indonesia is scheduled to host a high-level forum on infrastructure under the AOIP in June, ahead of the 53th Asean annual meeting in Vietnam. Some new initiatives under the AOIP will be discussed.

Major cross-border and non-traditional issues will also be discussed in Nha Trang.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula, the ongoing negotiations over the single draft of code of conduct in South China Sea and the Rakhine crisis are key issues Asean leaders are paying much attention to. The Asean chair has established close and trustful ties with North Korea after hosting the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi last February. As such, it has laid a good foundation for further Asean-North Korean engagement. In the future, it is foreseeable that Pyongyang might choose to upgrade its ties with Asean beyond its membership of the Asean Region Forum (2000) and its status as a signatory of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (2008).

For the first time, the Asean chair will really have to deal with the Rakhine crisis. It will be interesting to gauge what kind of approach Vietnam is planning for Asean.

Throughout the past three decades, Vietnam has been a strong supporter of Myanmar under different regimes and Hanoi played a pivotal role in pushing Myanmar's membership in the Asia Europe Meeting in 2006.

Much progress have been made under the Thai chair over the reading of the single draft of code of conduct on the South China Sea. The first meeting of the second reading under the Vietnamese chair concluded smoothly in November. Asean expects the second reading to be completed this year, with six meetings scheduled -- four at working group level and two at senior official level. Squabbling over a completed draft could start as soon as 2021, as China and Asean have agreed to expedite the drafting process so that the much awaited code of conduct will be completed when Brunei Darussalam takes the helm of Asean, the same year China expects to become a Xiaokang -- a moderately prosperous society.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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