ASEAN and Viet Nam's membership

by H.E Mr. HOANG VAN LOI, Ambassador-designate of the S.R of Viet Nam to the Republic of South Africa

7 August 2020

August 8th is celebrated among Southeast Asian countries as ASEAN Day, a time to reflect on how far the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has come since its inception on August 8th, 1967 as well as its future prospects. To regional countries, including Viet Nam, ASEAN plays a central role in ensuring peace, security and prosperity in an increasingly uncertain regional and global situation.

 ASEAN was established on August 8th 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration by its founding members, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The inclusion of Brunei (1984), Viet Nam (1995), Lao PDR and Myanmar (1997) and Cambodia (1999) expanded ASEAN’s scope to the whole of Southeast Asia, effectively transforming the region from the one clouded by the Cold War era’s enmity and division to the one of dialogue, trust and unity.

The signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 1976, establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994 and Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) in 1995 solidified ASEAN’s status as a region of peace, stability and cooperation. The formation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 as well as signing of Free Trade Agreements with key economies such as China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand have brought about prosperity and development to ASEAN, making it one of the most economically dynamic and connected regions in the world. In 2019, ASEAN was home to 650 million people with a total GDP of more than $3.2 trillion and a total trade turnover of more than $3 trillion.

The year 2015 marked an important milestone in ASEAN’s development with the establishment of the ASEAN Community on December 31st. The ASEAN Community showcases ASEAN’s political unity, economic integration and shared social responsibility. Today, ASEAN is widely regarded as a model for regional cooperation. ASEAN-led mechanisms have gained widespread membership and are highly regarded by major countries.

As a member country, Viet Nam has strived to make positive and concrete contributions to ASEAN. Immediately after joining the Association in 1995, Viet Nam has worked hard with other members to facilitate the inclusion of other countries to realise the dream of an ASEAN that comprises all 10 Southeast Asian nations. Viet Nam has been an active, proactive and responsible member in taking part in ASEAN-related endeavors, including the greater institutionalisation of ASEAN via the ASEAN Charter (2008), building a roadmap for the ASEAN Community (2009-2015), the post-2015 and post-2025 ASEAN Community Visions, implementation of ASEAN Community commitments in all three pillars: Political-Security Community, Economic Community and Socio-Cultural Community. Viet Nam successfully hosted the 6th and 10th ASEAN Summits and is the current ASEAN Chair for 2020. Viet Nam has worked closely with ASEAN members and external partners in spearheading initiatives such as expanding the East Asia Summit (EAS), establishing the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) mechanism as well as maintaining ASEAN’s central role in the evolving regional architecture.

Today, Viet Nam views ASEAN through 3 main prisms:

  • First, ASEAN is the foundation for Viet Nam to pursue its foreign policy line of maintaining an external environment conducive to national development and defense. Viet Nam and ASEAN members have joined hands to build a Southeast Asia region of friendship, peace and noconflicts. Viet Nam’s status as an ASEAN member has elevated its standing regionally and globally and has been integral in Viet Nam’s efforts to form frameworks for cooperation such as strategic and comprehensive partnerships with all neighboring countries, major powers and other important partners. Viet Nam’s ascension to key economic groupings such as APEC, ASEM, WTO, CPTPP, EVFTA... can also be partially attributed to prestige as an ASEAN member.
  • Second, ASEAN is a bridge for Viet Nam to harness international support in defending its security and development interests, including sensitive issues such as the South China Sea issue. ASEAN provides an open and transparent venue for Viet Nam and other countries in and beyond the region to engage in dialogue and interlock strategic interests. In dealing with major countries, most of whom take part in ASEAN-led mechanisms, small and medium-sized countries like Viet Nam can utilise ASEAN’s role as an honest broker and impartial mediator to boost its own leverage and bring international attention to issues not individually but as a united front.
  • Third, ASEAN integration helps Viet Nam strengthen its own multilateral diplomacy. Viet Nam’s success as an ASEAN member has paved the way for its success in other capacities such as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (2008-2009, 2020-2021), APEC host (2006, 2017), etc. ASEAN has helped prepare Viet Nam in its efforts to proactively take part in establishing international and regional “rules of the road” to address global challenges from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the South China Sea issue, the Leader’s Vision Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit held on 26 June 2020 echoed the importance of “maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea”, “mutual trust and confidence”, “dialogue and cooperation” and “support for a rules-based regional and international order, anchored in international law”. The Chairman’s Statement calls on parties to adhere to the “full and effective implementation” of the DOC and “maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations”. The latter also rightfully affirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for “determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” and “sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. The statements serve as a timely rebuke against opportunism and aggression in the South China Sea and those that take advantage of the global and regional preoccupation with COVID-19 to carry out expansionist activities, threaten peace, stability and violate international law and the 1982 UNCLOS.

Under Viet Nam’s Chairmanship, the 36th ASEAN Summit stands testament to the Association’s solidarity, cohesion, responsiveness and ability to quickly reach consensus in both strategic directions and concrete actions. ASEAN has not only maintained its course but also shown flexibility in tackling early on and head on new issues and challenges. As uncertainty will likely continue to cloud over the region in the foreseeable future, ASEAN’s unity, cooperation, solidarity and integration will be vital to the region’s future.

After more than five decades, ASEAN has achieved tremendous success as a regional organisation. As the global and regional situation becomes more fast-changing and volatile, ASEAN must remain steadfast in its commitment to building an ASEAN Community that is united, resilient and strong. To do this, ASEAN must strive to strengthen solidarity through mutual interests and enhancing existing cooperation frameworks. The Association must create more favorable conditions conducive to the members’ economic development and quickly adapt to new trends such as major power competition, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, pandemics, etc. Another important goal for ASEAN moving forward is to solidify and continue to strengthen its centrality in the region. A united ASEAN is critical to its centrality in the region and maintaining balanced and mutually beneficial relations with major partners. For the bilateral relationship between ASEAN and South Africa, both sides will continue working closely for our peoples’ mutual benefits. In 2020, with all efforts put by both sides, ASEAN desires to witness South Africa’s accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which helps foster the bilateral relations deeply, substantially and effectively.