Assessing Vietnam’s Leadership in 2020 – An Exclusive Interview With Dr. Do Thanh Hai

With Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN for 2020 coming to an end, we had Sanjana Dhar, Research Assistant at CSEAS, interviewed Dr. Do Thanh Hai, Counsellor at the Embassy of Vietnam in India, to discuss how the chairmanship has been for Vietnam, and the impact of other global and regional events on the country. The interview was published by Snippets of Southeast Asia, Issue 4, November 2020. 

Since taking over the chairmanship of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from Thailand earlier this year, how far has Vietnam been able to achieve its five priorities for 2020, and adapted its theme ‘Cohesive and Responsive’?

Answer: Vietnam assumed the chairmanship at the outbreak of the pandemic, and I think it is quite a challenging term, and the theme ‘Cohesive and Responsive’ was set before. It was not at the time when the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and it was not anticipated of course. It was not just about the pandemic, but also increased uncertainty caused by great power rivalry and also the changing security landscape, that made ASEAN adapt to that.

So far ASEAN has done well, and we are very close to the 37th ASEAN Summit and related meetings, scheduled between November 12 and 15. The week is featured with about 20 activities at the highest level, many meetings amongst ASEAN themselves, and also meetings between ASEAN and the other partners of the 15th East Asian Summit, and a special meeting for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Around 80 documents are said to be approved on this occasion, which is the highest number up to date for any ASEAN Summit season.

Briefly what ASEAN has achieved during Vietnam’s chairmanship, as you refer to the five priorities set in late 2019, has gradually been worked on over the past year. The first priority is about the ASEAN Community and Identity Building, where we are about to complete the mid-term review of ASEAN Community Vision 2025, the review of the implementation of the ASEAN Charter of more than ten years of implementation, and there will also be discussions on the post-2025 ASEAN Vision. Also, a number of measures have been discussed about increasing the ASEAN visibility in terms of using the ASEAN platform amongst the ASEAN member states.

Regarding the maintenance of peace and security and stability in the region, given the meetings across the year between ASEAN countries, where they have discussed a variety of regional affairs, including the South China Sea which Vietnam calls as the East Sea, the Rakhine issue and the Korean peninsula and developments elsewhere which have potential destabilizing effects on the region. I think that, especially for the South China Sea issue, ASEAN achieved a significant consensus on the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, considering the Convention as the most important basis for maritime activities and claims, and I think it is critical for strengthening the rules-based order in the region.

As a part of the responsiveness, ASEAN also quickly reacted to strengthen the fight against the pandemic, and it is scheduled to launch an ASEAN Regional Reserve of medical supplies for public health emergencies and also put up the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework and its implementation plan. So now, Vietnam has to work towards negotiating among the members to work out a framework, so that ASEAN can act as a community rather than individual states. Also, the connectivity has strengthened and now the conclusions of the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has begun, which unfortunately India for many reasons decided not to consider this time, but of course there is strong support across the region for India to join the partnership anytime they deem appropriate.

Last but not the least the ASEAN Centrality has also been enhanced, with the admission of a number of countries, namely Colombia, Cuba and South Africa through the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. This shows that ASEAN is very relevant and plays a key role in the regional architecture in one way or another. We also see a number of partnerships, including with India which has enhanced, and I think that ASEAN had e a successful year, given that the group faced a lot of difficulties and challenges due to the pandemic. Of course, many face-to-face meetings have been cancelled, but we managed to timely shift to the virtual mode to adapt to the needs of the circumstances. Despite that, we managed to negotiate a huge number of documents and of course among many members and partners, to make 2020 a fruitful and suceesful chairmanship.

The appointment of Vietnam for the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) presidency was a major step in the country’s image as a power to reckon with. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Hanoi’s plans and priorities in the Council?

Answer: Vietnam assumed very important roles this year, both ASEAN Chairmanship and also the non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. For the UNSC, we have striven to become a responsible member of the United Nations, by making active and constructive contributions to the organisation’s affairs, trying to focus both on the traditional and non-traditional security threats. Of course, UNSC is basically dedicated to the traditional security and Vietnam has, by one way or another, reiterated and actively contributed and adhered to the UN Charter and its principles, and we have worked relentlessly with other countries to find solutions to regional conflicts and global problems.

But we will also work on the non-traditional security issues, which have the potential to exacerbate the existing traditional problems we have, especially Vietnam has actively participated in the debates on climate and security, on the pandemic and on the challenges of sustaining peace, and also on the post-pandemic global governance, because we really think that more attention should be shifted to these topics because they have a huge impact on the security and stability of different communities across the globe.

We also have actual and substantive contributions to a range of documents and resolutions within the UNSC framework, especially in the importance of climate change, peace, security and stability and also the role of women in peacekeeping operations. We have also hosted some meetings on the security of the critical infrastructures against cyber-attacks. Most importantly, Vietnam and also Indonesia joined hand to connect the UNSC with ASEAN, and we have conducted the joint session between ASEAN and the Council, which was very productive.

Following the implementation of the ‘Joint Vision Statement on Vietnam – India Defence Cooperation for the period of 2015-2020’ in 2018, what are your thoughts on Vietnam’s position vis-à-vis India’s ‘Act East Policy’? What does the future entail for the bilateral relations of the two nations?

Answer: Vietnam considers India as a comprehensive strategic partner, which tops the hierarchy of partnerships with Vietnam, which includes comprehensive partnership, strategic partnership and the comprehensive-strategic partnership. India is at top echelon. It shows that we attach great importance to the bilateral relations. Vietnam is also a strong supporter of India’s Act East Policy and also facilitates India’s active and constructive role in the regional affairs. We support India’s engagement with ASEAN for the sake of maintaining peace and stability and the rules-based order in the region.

I think that the relations between the two countries are the strongest shape ever and will continue to be stronger in the near future. The defence cooperation is one of the most important pillars and is an area which is the most promising, with great potential for further cooperation. So far, the two countries have cooperation in most of the areas, defence training, military education, maritime domain awareness, defence industries and peacekeeping operations, but most of all we have regular talks amongst defence leaders and also the commanders of different services. I think given the strong foundations of the two countries, and also given the convergence of strategic interests, the future of the relations is bright. We hope to expand cooperation with India, not only in defence and security areas, but also in trade, investment, infrastructure developments, science and technology, and people-to-people ties. We continue to cultivate and improve the relations to make it stronger and for the advancement of both countries’ interests.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Vietnam was a high-profile affair, given it was his first foreign trip since taking office. What does this imply to the bilateral relations of the two nations, given the shifting dynamics of the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea dispute?

Answer: The foundation between Vietnam and Japan is always strong, and the relations have been growing over the past few decades, and not only economic relations but in defence and security realm as well. Japan and Vietnam also have similar views on issues concerning the regional security as well as focus on maintaining peace and stability across the region. The visit of Prime Minister Suga indicates that Japan considers Vietnam as one of its most important partners in the region.  I think so that given the pandemic and the increase in rivalry among great powers, the visit indicates a need for closer cooperation and stronger collaborations among the middle powers in the region, to cope with uncertainty and to work toward the common goal of maintaining peace, stability and the rules-based order in the region. We know that we not only need peace, but we also need rule of law. A power-based order is in no one’s interests.

What are your views on the shifting of Japanese supply chains from China to Vietnam, and its significance toward Vietnam’s economy amid the increasing engagement following Suga’s visit?

Answer: I think the shifting of supply chains is not only happening to Vietnam, but also to other countries. In cases of shifting manufacturing chains, there is a natural tendency of the global economy, because China is climbing up the value chain, so now its labour costs and also the costs for investment in China have become more expensive. China has put on more restrictions of various kinds, so companies now have to pay more to adapt and therefore, in seeking greater profit they will move elsewhere, of course either to Vietnam, India, other Southeast Asian nations and many countries are beneficiaries from these kinds of trends.

It is not only that. Also, we have witnesed growing distrust among nations, the securitization of economic ties, the trade war which has complicated the trade flows as well, all together makes a combination of different factors. But I don’t think that we should dramatise the shifting of the value chains, the shifting of production chains from one country to another, because I think it is a normal restructuring of the global economy and it is a chance for other countries to catch up with each other, especially the developing countries like Vietnam and India, and have a chance to attract manufacturers.

There is the risk that receiving countries suffer from greater dependence on the FDI and foreign resources for development, also a greater risk for environmental pollution, along with the manipulation from multinational corporations as well. Thus, it is a combination of a variety of factors and it is not just about political drivers behind the supply chain restructuring.

Given the developments in QUAD this year, including ministerial level meetings between the four countries, common efforts at diversifying supply chains, and Australia’s addition into the Malabar exercises, do you think Vietnam will risk diluting ASEAN centrality by joining QUAD in the future?

Answer: I think the formation of QUAD and also the rise of the Indo-Pacific visions in the foreign policy of different countries in the region is a natural response to the shifting of power in the region. There are increasing concerns about the unlawful and illegitimate activities in the maritime domain, especially from China. I also think that countries are concerned about the uncertain future and unpredictable developments across the region. The undermining of the rules-based order has made certain countries to move closer to each other.

But, I do not see the institutionalisation of the QUAD in the near future and I am also not sure about Vietnam’s desire to join the QUAD. So far Vietnam has been strongly committed to ASEAN and its processes, and we will work our way to boost the ASEAN centrality in the region. We are aware of the challenges to ASEAN, we are aware of its limitations to many issues, especially the South China Sea issue and other things. However, we still see that ASEAN is necessary, is relevant and is resilient in the shifting dynamics of the region, because ASEAN is the only regional organisation that can offer a place for all major powers to come and discuss other regional issues. There is no alternative for ASEAN. Even though there are difficulties, it is still very relevant and a strong force for stabilisation and for strengthening the rules-based order in the region. We have trust in ASEAN’s future, but of course we also welcome the constructive and positive positions and contributions of other countries as long as they help uphold peace, stability and the rule of law. Therefore, in one way or another, I think there are many complimentary trends happening at the same time.

With 2020 coming to an end soon, do you think Vietnam’s leadership in ASEAN and UNSC has done or achieved enough to showcase itself as a regional power in its own right?

Answer: We know that nothing is enough but of course we have tried our best and have achieved so many things in a challenging year. It is fair to say agility and our ability to cope with the shifting circumstances have not only been because of our own efforts, but also the support and cooperation of many partners and friends across the region.

To be frank, I haven’t seen Vietnam consider itself a regional power, but we see ourselves more as an active and responsible member of the regional and international community. We work hard to contribute to resolving the regional and global problems. We try to showcase our goodwill and efforts, we play by the commonly accepted rules and norms and we will also contribute to the adjusting and shaping of rules and norms for the sake of the collective interest. We try to sustain a peaceful and stable environment for socio-economic development, and we work with our effort and we work with others to achieve that. We think that we are part of larger communities, rather than as a power which has a desire to work on its own. We think that together we can go far. We can go fast alone, but in order to go far and to build sustained peace and long-term prospect for prosperity, we need to work with each other.

So, that is the way that we took our ASEAN chairmanship and we also undertook our role in the UNSC, so that we will be able to contribute and work with others. It is not only to advance our own interests but, we see our interests as part of the collective interest.