Phan Thế Thắng*
This year, the Chairmanship of ASEAN has been taken up by Việt Nam, which is its third time since the country joined ASEAN 25 years ago. The country also has a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council during 2020-21 which is also expected to help the country further raise ASEAN’s profile within the international community.
Yet, from the beginning of 2020, before Việt Nam could begin to roll out the details of this year’s ASEAN agenda, the country, like the rest of the world, was faced with the unforeseen challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to disrupting the daily lives of people, the economy and interactions among nations, the virus has also disrupted Việt Nam’s ASEAN chairmanship. Despite this, Việt Nam is making every effort to ensure the success of its Chairmanship.
Việt Nam’s engagement and integration with the region and the world can be said to have begun with its economic reform in 1986 when the country adopted the 'Đổi Mới' policy or all-round renovation process. This economic reform allowed Việt Nam to become one of the region’s fastest-growing economies within a generation.
Việt Nam joined ASEAN on July 28, 1995. Throughout its 25 years of membership, Việt Nam has made active and responsible contributions to ASEAN co-operation. Three years after joining the group, the country hosted its first summit in December 1998. Here, under Việt Nam’s Chairmanship, the leaders adopted the Hanoi Plan of Action, which began the community building process by laying down the implementation mechanisms for building an open, dynamic and resilient ASEAN Community by 2020. Việt Nam’s second term in the rotating Chairmanship came in 2010. Once again, the country took a leading role, this time to strengthen the strategic importance of ASEAN in the political-security field. Việt Nam arranged for the organisation of the first ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus (ADMM+), reinforcing ASEAN’s ability to bring together major players in the region within the ASEAN-led mechanism. It was also in 2010, that members of the East Asia Summit (EAS), agreed on expanding its membership to the US and Russia as proposed by Việt Nam on behalf of ASEAN.
The theme for this year's Chairmanship is 'Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN'. Through this theme, Việt Nam wishes to highlight the decisive role of solidarity and unity in maintaining the sustainability and relevance of ASEAN.
COVID-19 and challenges facing Việt Nam as ASEAN Chair
So far, the virus has spread across all ASEAN member states, with 74,310 confirmed cases and 2,324 fatalities as of May 22. In addition to the health crisis, the pandemic is also taking a toll by severely disrupting socio-economic activities, co-operation and exchanges in many fields, not to mention, between member states and among ASEAN and its external partners. The growth rate of all ASEAN members is predicted to sharply decline, and some ASEAN countries will suffer negative growth. Lockdowns, border closures, quarantines, travel restrictions, social distancing and temporary closure of business activities have been used across ASEAN to contain the virus, but the measures are also affecting all other areas, including ASEAN’s annual schedule. According to the ASEAN Secretariat, up to now, more than 200 ASEAN meetings have been postponed or cancelled. A lot of the expected plans of Việt Nam’s Chairmanship have been put on hold.
While the region has witnessed health crises before, none have been on such a scale both in terms of spread and duration. Việt Nam is making necessary adjustments as it navigates its chairmanship through the uncharted waters of COVID-19. At the same time, the country is making every effort to quickly contain the virus within its borders so it can be ready to host the rest of the meetings in the conventional way when the time comes.
The making of a cohesive and responsive ASEAN
Although the pandemic was nowhere in the minds of the Vietnamese Government officials when they were drafting the main idea for this year’s ASEAN Chairmanship, the theme 'Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN' almost perfectly reflects the current spirit within ASEAN as the members join efforts to tackle the virus.
First, under Việt Nam’s chairmanship, ASEAN activated virtual channels to ensure continuous communication among ASEAN members. This solution has helped ASEAN and its partners stay connected, sustain seamless co-ordination, and make quick and timely responses amidst the crisis. The first of its results came out on February 14 when Việt Nam issued the 'Chair’s Statement on ASEAN’s Joint Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19'. This statement aimed to draw attention to the risks of this virus, call for regional and international co-operation, underline ASEAN solidarity and unity, and reiterate commitment to working together to prevent the spread of the contagion and restoring peace and safety to daily life. Statements by the ASEAN defence, economic and tourism Ministers followed suit, recognising the need for close co-operation in not only curbing the spread of the virus but also restoring the economy in the aftermath. Then, on April 14, as chaired by Việt Nam, ASEAN leaders came together for a special online summit, where they agreed the top priority for ASEAN was to control and prevent the spread of disease and minimise socio-economic impacts in the process. Leaders emphasised reduction of disruptions in the supply chain and strengthening intra-ASEAN trade to ensure resilience and quick recovery.
Second, co-ordination with dialogue partners was efficiently carried out. As the ASEAN Chair, Việt Nam took the initiative for organising ad-hoc ASEAN+3 discussions. On April 14, Việt Nam chaired the special online summit on the COVID-19 response. The countries committed to standing ready to exchange experience, policies and epidemiological and clinical research, support each other with medical supplies and step up co-operation in COVID-19 vaccine and drug development. They also pledged to maintain open markets; make progress on the signing of RCEP; diversify the connectivity of supply sources in and outside the region, and ensure the flows of goods and services, especially essential medical materials and products.
Việt Nam has also proposed measures for co-operation in the fight against the pandemic at many other international virtual meetings, such as the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Video Conference on COVID-19 on March 20, the Ministerial Video-Conference of the Alliance for Multilateralism on COVID-19 on April 16, the G20 Health Ministers virtual Meeting on April 19 and the Special Online ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers Meeting on Coronavirus Disease on April 23.
Third, in the spirit of solidarity and cohesiveness, Việt Nam took the initiative in assisting neighbouring countries with medical equipment and protective gear. The support did not stop with its ASEAN friends but went further to assist other countries in Asia, Europe, the US and South America.
Fourth, to ramp up the responsiveness of ASEAN, Việt Nam made several proposals for the region, including establishing a regional reserve for medical equipment and essential products to meet urgent requirements and help mitigate supply shortage issues. It also called for the development of a common response process, based on the guidelines of the WHO, to reduce misunderstanding and promote efficiency as countries impose entry bans and quarantine measures. Viet Nam also mooted using online or tabletop exercises of the ASEAN Military Medical Center on disease response to increase the efficiency of ASEAN’s response to a new and emerging health crisis. The country also proposed a task force of ASEAN senior officials on information to help prevent the spread of panic and fear by controlling fake news.
Fifth, Việt Nam, considered as an effective disease control model, has shown its leading role in ASEAN in proactive, strong, and prompt response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, Việt Nam has basically controlled the disease less than 400 infections, no fatalities and more than 80 per cent of patients recovered. The country with a population of more than 95 million is just one of three ASEAN countries which have yet to report any fatalities from the disease alongside Laos and Cambodia.
ASEAN, and Việt Nam as well, have overcome multiple crises in the past, and have emerged stronger than ever. Likewise, the current pandemic will be an opportunity for bolstering ASEAN’s cohesiveness and responsiveness under Việt Nam’s Chairmanship.
* Phan Thế Thắng is Deputy Head of Information and Data Unit of the ASEAN-Korea Centre.
Dato Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN, recognised the achievements of Việt Nam's Chairmanship this year while tackling the challenges of COVID-19:
Việt Nam has demonstrated strong leadership in spearheading a collective regional response to COVID-19. Its Chairmanship theme of building a cohesive and responsive ASEAN is very relevant given the situation we find ourselves in. ASEAN’s strong response is in large part due to Việt Nam’s leadership in encouraging our continued dialogue and collaboration.
Nongchith Khambounheuang, Head of AKC-TIU, a seconded government official of the Laos government to the ASEAN-Korea Centre (AKC):
Việt Nam did a good job in terms of gathering co-operative measures among ASEAN member states, ASEAN dialogue partners, and international organisations as well as promptly sharing the information on COVID-19. Việt Nam has strongly demonstrated its solidarity and assistance with other countries by donating medical supplies to countries in the region or severely affected, including Laos - my country, to prevent and combat COVID-19. For future co-operation as the Chair of ASEAN this year, Việt Nam may focus on bringing the co-operation closer with AMS and its partners on how to produce a vaccine for COVID-19 at the earliest and continue calling on countries to ensure the rights to access drugs and vaccines against COVID-19.
Lee Soo-Young, CEO of Asia Star Co., Ltd, a South Korean company doing business in Việt Nam, shared his insights:
We have seen that the Việt Nam Government took the best actions to prevent COVID-19 promptly and it is a successful model for people to trust the Government and follow it. We have been overcoming COVID-19 all together, and it is time to make a good chance from the pandemic risk. I fully supported the statement of the Prime Minister of Việt Nam, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc that the COVID-19 epidemic is like a test, so if we can turn 'danger' into 'opportunity' successfully, Việt Nam will possibly take off higher and farther.