Vietnam plays role of reluctant Asian middle power

In private discussions with senior Vietnamese foreign ministry officials, one could easily get the feeling that the socialist republic is a reluctant rising middle power in Asia. In their view, Vietnam is doing well in terms of regional and international profile, with its uninterrupted political stability and expanding economic growth. The latest report by the Asia Development Bank that its GDP growth will be around 6.8% this year is good testimony to its success.

On the other hand, they were also aware of the country's vulnerabilities as it continues to modernise and integrate with global economies. Since the end of the Indochina War, Vietnam has been able to adapt and adjust itself by engaging with and managing a hostile and disruptive external environment to become a regional force to be reckoned with. As the country prepares to take up the Asean chairmanship next year along with a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), Vietnam is preparing a long to-do list for both at home and abroad.

Last week, dozens of senior foreign ministry officials from Vietnam and Japan attended seminars on various aspects of their relations at the Asean-Japan Day. The huge conference, participated in by nearly 400 delegates, displayed the significance that Japan attaches to Vietnam, the current coordinator, and its pivotal role in Japan's foreign policy.

They also held talks on ways to strengthen their strategic partnership. Both countries are seeking concerted measures to develop their partnership in maritime security. Japan plans to strengthen maritime law enforcement, capacity, and domain awareness. Japan has already provided Vietnam with six new offshore patrol vessels that will enable the socialist republic to increase the frequency and effectiveness of its coastal patrols.

Japan is not the only country wooing Vietnam strategically. Other countries, including the US, Russia, the EU, India, South Korea and Australia, plan to promote Vietnam's maritime security capacity. In a Defence White Paper that is expected to be released in the autumn, Vietnam will change its defence strategy from land-based into maritime-based forces, shifting the outlook of Vietnam's People's Army since the end of Indochina War. This is a significant move to bolster the security of its 3,260-kilometre coastline facing the vast Pacific Ocean.

In addition, Vietnam's global profile has been upgraded several notches since its successful hosting of the anticlimactic second Trump-Kim summit in February. Even though the US and North Korea were unable to agree on denuclearisation plans, the host has been extremely pleased with the results of the summit, as Vietnam has become one of catalysts in the Korean Peninsula's future development, especially in issues related to economic planning and transition. Before the summit, Vietnam's role in assisting North Korea's future economic roadmap was widely discussed. US President Donald Trump even said that North Korea could be the next Vietnam.

During the five-day summit, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un stayed in Hanoi and was impressed with the country's economic reforms and progress. During the 192-km drive from the border town of Dong Dang in Lang Son province to Hanoi, Mr Kim and his entourage travelled by limousine along the four-lane National Highway No.1. According to one Asean diplomat, Mr Kim was flabbergasted to see such broad, well-paved highways and thick layers of security during the trip. After all, North Korea has only 700km of highways. Throughout the ride, Vietnam mobilised tens of thousands of flag wavers to welcome Mr Kim and his entourage.

The diplomat said that no country had ever provided such tight security to a high-profile guest like Mr Kim saw during his visit. At several points during the overland trip, Mr Kim had to roll down his window and smile to the flag-waving crowd. Vietnam had to call out one division of troops and three divisions of security personnel, including police, for the security operation during Mr Kim's visit. It was also a show case of the more decentralised and efficient security sector, which has undergone extensive reforms and streamlining.

In the three months since the summit, Pyongyang has sent several official delegations to Hanoi to learn more about financial management and investment and business laws. Small groups of North Koreans have also visited Vietnam. Pyongyang has placed Hanoi at the top tier of its friends. The warming of Vietnam-North Korea ties has caught political pundits by surprise as it came amid the trial in Malaysia of a Vietnamese woman and Indonesian woman accused of assassinating Mr Kim's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at a Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Both women were subsequently freed.

As Thailand reaches the half-way point of its time as Asean chair, Vietnam has already mapped out the general thrust of its chairmanship next year. It will focus on Asean community building to strengthen its cohesiveness and continue to narrow the gap between new and old members. Vietnam's economic development model has inspired other new members -- Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Next year, Vietnam envisages Asean taking a more active role in defence and security matters, especially under Asean-led mechanisms like Asean Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus. The objective is to further promote Asean centrality to counter challenges coming from an unpredictable strategic landscape and to manage the grouping's ties with the major powers. Hanoi would like to push for the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other measures that would enable a "Seamless Asean". Issues related to migrant workers, and the protection of women, children and other vulnerable groups would be another highlight.

At the UN level, Vietnam has already got its work cut out as it decided to go with the theme of partnership for sustainable peace with key objectives to strengthen UN peace keeping. With its second sitting on the UNSC, Vietnam will continue to raise Asean's profile at the world body. Hanoi plans to dispatch more female officers to join UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, probably in Sudan, and additional teams of military doctors. Vietnam will also promote linkages of Asean various agendas with the UN, especially in the areas of sustainable development and connectivity.


Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

RELATED STORIES

Back to top