By James Borton
The first day of the New Year, known as Tet in Vietnam, falls on January 25 and signals the beginning of a new day. At the start of the year, Hanoi is wasting little time to shine a global spotlight on its position, prestige, and responsibility as the new chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
As president of the Security Council, Vietnam’s current plans to lead a ministerial-level open debate on “Upholding the UN Charter to Maintain Peace and Security,” face challenges with escalating tensions between Washington and Iran over drone strikes on Iran’s military leaders; shifting fault lines across the Middle East; the North Korean nuclear crisis; climate change threats to food production; and the rise of China.
Vietnam has in a single generation leaped forward from a poor, insular economy to a middle-income country with a globally-integrated, socialist-oriented market economy. Now in its dual global leadership roles at ASEAN and the UN Security Council, Hanoi appears poised to reaffirm the principles of the UN Charter to maintain peace, security, and international cooperation.
The first order of business for Vietnam and its biggest test is to assure the largest international organization, with its 193 member states, that the Security Council can respond effectively and quickly to emerging crises. The possibility of an increase in threats from Iran will surely necessitate a collective UN response, since Washington expects violent backlash from Tehran and its proxies, which will play out widely in the Middle East.
It’s also no coincidence that the theme of multilateralization is central to ASEAN and at the UN. June 26, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter and its announced theme is, ‘The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism.’ There are clear signposts that Hanoi supports ASEAN Centrality in reinforcing an open, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture, as well as the UN’s central role in the global multilateral system.
On a regional level, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), formed in 2015, represents a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion, and is also the third fastest-growing major Indo-Pacific economy in the past decade, after China and India. The region represents the third-largest population in the world with 650 million people.
For many ASEAN countries, the central issue remains the rise of China and Beijing’s continuing efforts through its economic power to place pressure on weaker nation states. In addition, the rise of trade protectionism and unilateral trade policy also poses risks and challenges to multilateralism.
Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister, states that “Vietnam will do its level best to work with member states towards sustainable peace and development.” In a recent speech, he stressed that the entire international community must revitalize multilateralism, strengthen the United Nations, respect international law, and reaffirm the Charter of the UN.
China’s construction of artificial islands during the past few years has raised serious concerns and proves a challenge to Vietnam’s leadership since Beijing’s capacious claims have a weak basis in international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Many policy observers now believe that ASEAN members will face off with China over a maritime code of conduct. China has derailed previous efforts, but Vietnam seems ready to bring this to a conclusive vote under its leadership.
“With its central role in the evolving regional architecture, ASEAN is highly appreciated by countries in and outside the region that want to cooperate with it,” says Party General Secretary, President Nguyen Phu Trong.
What’s clear is that Vietnam’s efforts to forge a unified ASEAN front to tap down China’s monolithic presence in the region offer a clear opportunity for Washington to engage Vietnam without further antagonism of Beijing.
Fifty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the relationship between the US and Vietnam has changed dramatically. From former enemies to trade partners, the two countries are now embarked on a trajectory that includes recognition of Hanoi’s economic openness and political stability.
Hanoi’s ASEAN leadership, coupled with their UN security role, may prove instrumental in improving US relations with the region so that together they can diplomatically pressure China to adhere to the tenets of international law.
Furthermore, with Vietnam’s dual roles, expect to see enhanced dialogue on global security issues of common concern in the wider Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere, which will have an impact on international peace and security. This may translate into confidence-building measures that promote maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce.
While 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, it also commemorates the 25th year of the normalization of US-Vietnam trade relations and Vietnam’s entry into ASEAN. The celebrations at best may prove illusory and short-lived since Hanoi’s political leadership will be busy exercising adept diplomacy statecraft in the coming months.
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