The chairmanship of ASEAN rotates annually in alphabetical order, and the clock usually starts ticking from the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat. Following this practice, 10 ASEAN foreign ministers gathered in Nha Trang, Vietnam, on Jan. 16 to 17. Just before the retreat, Vietnam officially launched its 2020 ASEAN chairmanship with a theme “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN”.
In his speech on Vietnam’s 2020 ASEAN chairmanship on Jan. 6, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc laid out five priorities for implementing this theme. First was ASEAN’s active role and contribution to maintaining regional peace and stability; he also emphasized the importance of strengthening ASEAN’s unity as well as cooperation among the ASEAN member states.
Ever-increasing regional and external uncertainties arousing from the rivalry between global powers seem to have led to ASEAN’s need to strengthen its unity and responsive capabilities.
The reception of this year’s theme from pundits seems that “Cohesive and responsive ASEAN” sounds more politically weighted compared to the previous ones. ASEAN chairs’ themes were “Advancing partnership for sustainability” and “Resilience and innovation” in 2019 and 2018 respectively, with more focus on the economic dimension.
This year’s theme seems more politically nuanced, and is derived from both ASEAN's international environment and also from Vietnam’s own vision and confidence.
Economically, Vietnam has a proven remarkable track record of phenomenal growth over the last three decades. Diplomatically, beginning this year, the country has also succeeded in assuming a nonpermanent membership on the United Nations Security Council for the second time while chairing ASEAN for the third time.
ASEAN chairmanship, however, also presents Vietnam with tough challenges. For one, it seems ASEAN cannot afford to repeat the failure of 2012 when ASEAN foreign ministers fell short of adopting a joint communique for the first time in its history due to disagreements among the member states over the issue of the South China Sea.
ASEAN and China will perhaps begin their second reading of the draft text of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in the foreseeable future. While the international community looks forward to the smooth conclusion of this Code of Conduct, it might be a test-bed for ASEAN’s pledge of “Cohesive ASEAN”.
The challenge also remains to prove that the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, adopted by ASEAN leaders last June, could develop into a practical foundation for action plans.
Indonesia’s plan to host the ASEAN-World Economic Forum on Indo-Pacific Infrastructure and Connectivity this July seems to aim at providing a platform in this regard.
Additionally, the Phase One Trade Agreement between Washington and Beijing could create an environment conducive for a “Cohesive and responsive ASEAN”. But the deal has not ceased the fire completely.
The new abnormal of today’s world could place ASEAN under unprecedented difficulties. Navigating the surroundings of ASEAN as captain does not seem to be an easy job.
The history of ASEAN, however, tells us that from its inception and through its evolution, crises and obstacles have instead functioned as a catalyst for strengthening the unity of ASEAN and amplifying regional cooperation.
For instance, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s triggered ASEAN and its neighbors to seriously weigh the need for financial integration in the region and for the concrete measures to avert any possible future crisis.
The outcome of this regional initiative is the Chiang Mai Initiative, a multilateral currency swap arrangement among ASEAN, South Korea, China and Japan.
A crisis has been translated into a success story of regional cooperation thanks to the wisdom and courage of ASEAN and its neighbors.
This year's ASEAN theme certainly resonates with the Vietnamese proverb, “One tree alone cannot make a hill; three trees together make a high mountain”. Vietnam calls for unity and a proactive response from ASEAN's 10 member states. Vietnam, which had to historically struggle with major powers for its very existence, now stands on a rostrum for orchestrating ASEAN.
South Korea, as well as other nations, looks forward to Vietnam's successful chairmanship in bringing greater regional stability and prosperity.
Ambassador of Republic of Korea to ASEAN
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.