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Vietnam to champion ‘cohesive’ ASEAN in 2020 amid more assertive China
Linh Pham 00:25, 2019/12/06
The ASEAN chair is by tradition expected to show restraint and place the region’s interests before its own.

Vietnam is likely to make its full efforts to boost ASEAN unity when it assumes the chairmanship of the bloc in 2020 in the face of more assertive China in the South China Sea, regional experts have said.

Prof. Aleksius Jemadu, Pelita Harapan University. Photo: Medcom 

Hanoi is pushing for a more “cohesive and responsive” ASEAN next year which international relations experts believe will be a challenging year for ASEAN unity, setting the tone for the contestation of a decades-long dispute in the South China Sea, the Jakarta Post quoted Prof. Aleksius Jemadu at Pelita Harapan University, Indonesia as saying.

Vietnam officially announced its plans for the ASEAN chairmanship at the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in November. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc noted in his speech during the handover ceremony that Vietnam had adopted “A Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN” as the theme for its 2020 chairmanship.

Vietnam takes over the chairmanship from Thailand, with plans to host as many as 300 meetings and activities, a vice foreign minister said. The most important of those meetings are the ASEAN Summits that are slated for April and November, as well as the 41st General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) in August.

Aleksius Jemadu said the country wished to foster a “sustainable cohesiveness” among member states by consolidating unity, increasing economic connectivity, promoting shared values and a common identity, improving ASEAN’s efficiency and ties with dialogue partners.

He said Vietnam’s theme for next year indicated intent to restore ASEAN unity in the face of growing Chinese influence in the region.

 Teuku Rezasyah, International Relations, Padjadjaran University. Photo: Netnews
The scholar argued that a more cohesive ASEAN would serve as a platform for Vietnam to increase its bargaining power in negotiations for a final draft of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, which is currently being negotiated among ASEAN countries and China.

“Vietnam is committed to regional cooperation as an important platform to deal with the great powers; [...] it is going to [do its utmost to] make its chairmanship successful in dealing with geopolitical concerns partly to do with the rise of China,” he said in a discussion hosted by the Habibie Center in Jakarta on Tuesday [December 3].

The COC is a set of norms and guidelines that will govern activities in the South China Sea which is claimed by China and a few other countries, including Vietnam. Vietnam and China have been involved in a number of skirmishes this year, further straining testy ties. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest global maritime shipping routes.

But he pointed out that “Vietnam’s assertive policy as a claimant in the South China Sea is hampered by the pragmatic attitude of other claimants, such as the Philippines and Brunei,” while also noting China’s strong economic influence over neighboring Cambodia and Laos.

However, Vietnam should be confident enough to perform its duties as ASEAN chair with its stable national leadership and the good work ethic of its people, as well as its proven capacity as a quick learner when it comes to competing in the global economy, said Prof. Teuku Rezasyah, International Relations, Padjadjaran University, Indonesia.

In the midst of a slowing global economy, Vietnam has emerged as an outlier among the developing economies of Asia, having successfully weathered the economic headwinds exacerbated by an ongoing trade war between China and the US.

According to the World Bank, Vietnam recorded 7% gross domestic product growth in 2018, outpacing its ASEAN brethren. “It is well above the region’s average of 4%,” Rezasyah said.

The World Bank projects that, in the medium-term, Vietnam’s economic outlook would remain positive even as the prospects for other economies like Indonesia had been slashed.

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