Before Southeast Asian leaders took part in the virtual Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease on April 14, a rumor was circulating that Vietnam, which holds the rotating ASEAN chair this year, was angling to extend its chairmanship for yet another year, several sources tell me.
For Vietnam, the coronavirus pandemic has scuppered its hopes of achieving real change in the ASEAN bloc this year. The Nikkei Asian Review’s Toru Takahashi spelled this out in an article published on April 6, entitled “Vietnam’s lost year.” But extending Vietnam’s chairmanship of the bloc for another year would be unprecedented. Since the chair rotates annually in alphabetical order, it would mean Brunei would have to delay its chairmanship until 2022.
“After the outbreak of the coronavirus in China in January, rumors began to surface in diplomatic circles that Vietnam was sounding out other ASEAN members with a proposal to extend its term as ASEAN Chair for another year,” analyst Carl Thayer told me. “Unfortunately, the coronavirus prevented ASEAN heads of government from meeting face-to-face and thus deprived Vietnam of the opportunity to determine if there was consensus on its suggestion to extend its term as ASEAN Chair.”
According to Thayer, the Special ASEAN Summit on April 14 was focused entirely on COVID-19. As such, it is thought that the issue of Vietnam’s possible extension was not discussed. One source told me private discussions about this took place between Southeast Asian diplomats in the days leading up to the summit. It is unclear, though, if it was discussed formally, and whether there was support for it or push back against it.
Readers should be aware that, for now, this issue is in the realms of rumor and backroom-talks between diplomats. But several Southeast Asia commentators – who didn’t wish to be named in this piece, given that speculative nature of the topic – suggested it could be a good idea. For starters, there was much anticipation that Vietnam could significantly improve ASEAN’s capabilities this year. It has an increasingly competent and assertive foreign ministry, and has played a far more active role in international affairs in recent years, such as hosting the U.S.-North Korea peace talks in early 2019. Indeed, Vietnam also holds a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2020 and 2021. (My recent article for Asia Times discusses Vietnam’s foreign policy successes.)
Vietnam set itself five objectives this year, mainly to do with strengthening regional unity, connections, and partnerships. While some are still achievable, especially given the prowess of Vietnam’s foreign diplomacy, most will have to be inherited by the next ASEAN chair. But there were also major issues on the agenda for Vietnam this year, such as forging ahead with a code of conduct between ASEAN and China over the South China Sea. Both sides planned to settle it by 2021.
Ordinarily, as ASEAN chair, Vietnam could have spent this year working with other regional states to agree to a policy that is in their own interests – many analysts suspect that without a forceful country like Vietnam in charge of ASEAN’s side of negotiations, Beijing could convince the bloc to accept a code of conduct that is entirely favorable to China’s interests. But if Vietnam cannot inspire some sort of consensus this year because of coronavirus disruptions, and if the issue isn’t settled before next year, then Brunei as ASEAN chair in 2021 might have very different ideas than Hanoi about how to ease tensions in the South China Sea.
It’s also in Southeast Asia’s interest to have as senior diplomatic force, like Vietnam’s, in a position of regional authority next year to deal with the fallout of the U.S. presidential election in November, which will either see Trump win a second term or a new president, almost certainly Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, take office. Vietnam, which has become one of America’s closest partners in the region, could serve as a useful pointman if Washington wants to reset its agenda in Southeast Asia next year. This is all the more true when one notes that Brunei has a much smaller and less experienced diplomatic force, and has much weaker ties to the United States and China, compared to Vietnam.
There is also the not-so-incidental fact that the next Southeast Asia Games, a regional sporting contest that takes place every two years, will take place in Vietnam next year, in November and December 2021.
But there are numerous obstacles to Vietnam getting another year as the ASEAN chair. In March, Brunei’s government put aside $2 million in this year’s budget to prepare for hosting the ASEAN Summits next year, while its diplomats, no doubt, are already formulating their agenda. As well as placating Brunei, Vietnam would also need to convince other regional states to accept a year’s delay in their holding of the ASEAN chair.
Regional partners could argue that, despite the unprecedented crisis caused the pandemic, Vietnam has to make do. Hanoi wouldn’t like it, but it wouldn’t be exceptional if Vietnam is only able to host just one ASEAN Summit, instead of the standard two, this year – by rolling both together in November. When Laos was ASEAN chair in 2016, it pushed together both year’s summits into the same event, in September of that year.
There is history of countries shifting the alphabetical order. In 2011, Brunei allowed Indonesia to swap turns as ASEAN chair – with Indonesia holding it that year, and Brunei taking Indonesia’s allocated time in 2013 – as Indonesia also planned to host the APEC Summit in 2013, and didn’t want events to overlap. But when Brunei and Indonesia agreed to this swap, it had to be unanimously accepted by the other ASEAN states.
Most likely, a unanimous decision would also be needed for Vietnam to take the unprecedented step of holding the ASEAN chair for two consecutive years. Is such unanimity likely? Possibly not. Aside from the sense of unfairness if Brunei and other states have to delay their chairmanship for a year, if Beijing senses that another year as ASEAN chair will allow Hanoi to instigate policies that are harmful to China’s relations in Southeast Asia, or help Hanoi to fashion more regional unity against China’s aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, then Beijing could pressure its allies in ASEAN to scupper Vietnam’s chances of an extended term.
But, in many ways, this whole issue will be a test of whether ASEAN is prepared to reform. Up until the 1990s, the bloc’s foreign policy was mainly set by Indonesia, the region’s primus inter pares. Afterwards, ASEAN pursued a policy of consensus and equal decision-making, the so-called “ASEAN Way,” but that has only led to more divisions and weakened the bloc’s authority. For many analysts, Indonesia needs to retain the mantle as first amongst equals. I am not alone, however, in believing that Vietnam stands a better chance at taking on this more assertive role. Giving Vietnam another year as ASEAN chair, then, would surely be a sign that the bloc is prepared to allow one state an oversized role in shaping the region’s policy.