This month, Vietnam officially began its term as president of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as part of its stint as a nonpermanent UNSC member for the 2020-2021 term. While this represents a significant development for Vietnam’s foreign policy, it also poses a mix of opportunities and challenges that Vietnamese policymakers will have to navigate.
Vietname joined the United Nations in 1977 after the end of the Vietnam War. As I have noted before, as Hanoi became a more active international player starting from the 1990s after a series of previous domestic reforms in a post-Cold War context, Vietnam has seen the United Nations as being a key part of its broader contemporary foreign policy. That general diplomatic strategy seeks to raise Vietnam’s profile, diversify its alignments, integrate the country into the wider world, and demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism and international rules and norms. Vietnam first held a nonpermanent seat on the UNSC back in 2008-2009, and secured its second stint last year after an election in June.
On January 1, Vietnam officially kicked off the beginning of its UNSC term for 2020-2021. The development came amid a series of comments from high-ranking diplomats and officials, including a message from Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General and President Nguyen Phu Trong that once again reinforced the importance of this for Vietnam’s foreign policy and the country more generally.
Vietnam has officially set out some priorities for its UNSC stint in line with issues that it considers of significance and where it can also play an important role, including peacekeeping, war legacy issues, climate change, and coordination between the UN and ASEAN (which spotlights Hanoi’s own dual-hatted status in 2020, with it also holding the ASEAN chair). Beyond these general priorities, Vietnam’s broader behavior at the UNSC, including how it works with permanent members such as the United States, China, and Russia and other nonpermanent members including Indonesia, another Southeast Asian state simultaneously on the UNSC with a partial overlap between the two, will be important to observe.
But while Vietnam sees the UNSC stint as an opportunity to advance its own objectives, Hanoi is also not blind to the fact that it will also pose its fair share of challenges as well. Generally, as I’ve observed, 2020-2021 will be a busy period for Vietnam since, in addition to the UNSC seat, it is also holding the 2020 annually rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, preparing for its quinquennial Party Congress in 2021, which is a key event for its domestic politics, and also continuing to confront a complicated external environment with manifestations of populism, protectionism, and power politics that Vietnam will have to navigate.
More specifically, holding a UN seat also means that Vietnam will have to manage its ties with various countries when it comes to issues that it would usually not be as directly involved in. Already, this month, rising U.S.-Iran tensions following the killing of Qassem Soleimani have directly affected events at the UNSC during Vietnam’s UNSC presidency as my colleague Ankit Panda and I discussed on our recent podcast, with a case in point being the barring of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif from attending proceedings at the UNSC where we can expect these and more high-level foreign policy issues to play out. This was exactly the kind of “unexpected developments and situations” that the head of Vietnam’s permanent mission to the United Nations Dang Dinh Quy had told Vietnamese media would be a challenge for Vietnam during its term, since these developments could generate conflicting interests and clashes.
To be sure, managing such foreign policy challenges is not new to Vietnam, and the country has been paying key attention to preparing for its UNSC stint dating back to late last year. Nonetheless, Vietnam’s term as a nonpermanent UNSC member will certainly test the country’s ability to manage both the opportunities and challenges inherent in a role that is important for the ongoing evolution of its overall foreign policy and its approach to the region and the world more generally.