Prof. Le Van Toan
October 13, 2019


Image Courtesy: Prensa Latina

From January 2020, Vietnam will be the Chairman of ASEAN. This commentary reflects on important questions like, how have global and regional developments affected the Chairmanship bid of Vietnam? What roles will Vietnam play? And how Vietnam prepared itself for opportunities and challenges of this position?

Global context

Modern history has observed three powerful changes causing drastic transformations in politics, military, economics, and socio-culture attitudes world over:

  1. The emergence of Europe under the impact of the commercial and industrial revolutions from the 15th to the 18th century.
  2. The emergence of the US from the end of the 19th century.
  3. The emergence of China and India from the beginning of the twenty-first century until now, which has led to the third power shift globally, especially in its pull of power gravity from the West to the East. This has led to the emergence of the Asian century. This shift has created a world of multi-alignments and multi-centers. 

The contemporary world has undergone many great changes, which has impacted most of the countries and peoples. Although peace and development are the most prominent trends, issues such as non-traditional security, the rise of populism, and protection are becoming serious. 

Asia Pacific region has been at the center of this geopolitical churn, most prominently due to the following issues:

  • The bi-directional impact of the “Indo – Pacific strategy with its “free and open” conception of the region primarily led by the US;
  • China’s Belt and Road initiative;
  • The global impact of the US-China Trade War; 
  • Chinese military acceleration, and its increasing oil and gas surveys in areas east of Vietnam. For instance, Chinese survey ships repeatedly approached the Vanguard Bank in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam recently.

The above contexts have influenced global issues in general, particularly in the ASEAN region, with bearings on Vietnam and its upcoming 2020ASEAN Chairmanship. 

Opportunities and Challenges 


Today, Vietnam and South-East Asian countries do not have adequate military, political, or economic clout. These countries are in the center of an extremely fraught geostrategic and geopolitical competition between two superpowers in the Pacific, which are the US and China. Therefore, selecting an approach to their relationships with either party is a problematic issue, especially in taking advantage of the opportunities without necessary obligations. In this context, the government of Vietnam selected independence and autonomy. The country would decide its friendships and partnerships based on its internal strength and interests. This appropriate choice could lead to many achievements. It could offer Vietnam and ASEAN the following opportunities: 

The suspicion and mistrust between the superpowers pave the way for the construction of useful cooperation mechanisms in the region for smaller parties through cooperation windows. The ASEAN countries could use this as an opportunity to further cooperation between themselves.

The achievements of ASEAN countries during its 52 years of establishment and its development-oriented approach in keeping peace and stability in the whole region have made ASEAN one of the most successful regional institutions of the world, which plays a significant role in Asia. 

ASEAN has constructed its three pillars community since the end of 2015: – The Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economics Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). The establishment of the ASEAN Community on December 31, 2015[1] was an important event for practical cooperation within the bloc. This is one of the most favorable conditions for ASEAN to play the central role in the cooperation between ASEAN and the superpowers in the region. Because of the strategic nature of competition, the superpowers support the role of ASEAN in the attempt to construct regional cooperation mechanisms. Forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), Shangri-La Dialogue, and the East Asia Elite (EAE) are central to ASEAN and are irreplaceable in the Asia – Pacific. ASEAN has been playing a stimulating role in the region, by formulating an important agenda as a group of small countries in the Asia–Pacific, contributing to regional cooperation along with the support of major powers. 

For Vietnam, during the ASEAN Chairmanship, it will have opportunities to develop, increase trade turnover, expand the market, increase FDI, improve its position in the global and regional value chains, benefits in terms of the business environment for entrepreneurs, improve effectiveness, and reduce costs. Vietnam will also have opportunities to ensure peace, stability, and maintain a better relationship with neighborhood countries, increase the relationship with big countries, and improve the position of Vietnam at the international stage. 


The global picture today has recognized a “multi-centered” world. Increasing engagement of the big countries with the small and medium-sized countries, like the countries in the ASEAN bloc, represents the true spirit of this multi-centered engagement. This challenges the strengthening of independence and autonomy. It is in this context, that big countries expand their reach by using “soft power” in their economic, trade, investment, and technological ties, causing dependence among smaller countries.

In the competition between superpowers, in many aspects, the small and medium-sized countries seek the right balance in their relationships with the big countries, to avoid direct conflict with the superpowers. 

In the current times of arms race, the small and medium-sized countries must set aside certain resources to build their militaries, improve national defense and protection. Other developments in non-traditional security also challenge the countries to research and find optimal responses. The East Sea is always in troubled waters. The East Sea issue challenges the solidarity of ASEAN members, and Vietnam should take this issue seriously during its Chairmanship of the bloc.

In over 50 years of establishment and development, ASEAN has been a successful regional institution. ASEAN members have learned the lessons of solidarity, unity, and inter-dependence for mutual benefits. Facing constant changes and new developments within ASEAN, the bloc members need to address the following questions: 

How to sustain the importance of ASEAN? How to strengthen and maintain the central role not only in the Asia–Pacific but also in the area of expanding protectionism, and to adapt to the constantly changing global and regional context? 

These are the big challenges for ASEAN generally, and for Vietnam specifically, and there is a possibility of these issues being ironed out during Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2020. 

The preparation of Vietnam for ASEAN Chairmanship 2020

During 25 years of joining ASEAN, Vietnam has been the most proactive member, contributing significantly to the development of ASEAN. In 2010, Vietnam chaired ASEAN for the first time, and it performed well, especially in the role of facilitation in all fields, and earned much appreciation from ASEAN members and partner countries. Vietnam has always been the member with the highest rate of implementation of the plans for ASEAN Community development. Vietnam leads in many fields, especially in promoting solidarity, unity, and enhancement of cooperation in politics, security, and economics[2].

In 2020, Vietnam will chair ASEAN for the second time. The Chairmanship is a responsibility, duty, and a great opportunity for Vietnam. The Chairman of ASEAN also provides Vietnam the responsibility to inherit and continue the momentum of the development of ASEAN and continue the on-going programs. Moreover, the capacity of the Chairman reflects in how the Chairman facilitates the internal cooperation and promotes the status of ASEAN to the outsiders. This is an opportunity for Vietnam to contribute to the common mission; to achieve the common goals for the common benefit of the bloc. It is also an opportunity to improve the reputation of Vietnam and promote the nation and people of Vietnam in the world. 

The year 2020 is a special year for ASEAN and Vietnam. For ASEAN, it is the fifth anniversary of the ASEAN Community, a significant milestone of mid-term assessment of the ASEAN Community building in 2015-2020, the finalization of a series of action plans of ASEAN and its partners. For Vietnam, in 2020, it will be a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It is also the 25th anniversary of Vietnam joining ASEAN, and the year of many big anniversaries such as: the 130th anniversary of the birthday of President Ho Chi Minh (1890 – 2020); the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of Vietnam (1930 – 2020); the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (1945-2020); the 45th anniversary of liberation in the South of Vietnam and country reunification (1975-2020); and preparation for the 13th National Congress of Communist Party of Vietnam. 

Thus, the success of ASEAN Chairmanship 2020 is both the opportunity and challenge for Vietnam to apply its capacity and perform leading roles to meet the expectation of ASEAN members and partners.

Vietnam started its preparation for ASEAN Chairmanship 2020 as early as in 2018. The Prime Minister of Vietnam decided to establish the National ASEAN 2020 Committee and assigned the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, H. E. Pham Binh Minh, to be the Chairman of the Committee. The launching ceremony of this Committee was held in December 2018. At the launching ceremony, Prime Minister of Vietnam, H. E. Nguyen Xuan Phuc, said, “Vietnam considers ASEAN as the top priority and the ‘founding stone’ for Vietnam in multilateral foreign affairs. Vietnam wishes to further contribute practically in the process of creating and developing the consolidated ASEAN Community, playing the central role in the region, making a benign ASEAN in unity, identities, and being highly adaptable for development and prosperity, and can engage in solving global issues.”[3]

Vietnamese National ASEAN 2020 Committee has several sub-Committees, including, the sub-Committee of contents; the sub-Committee of Protocol; the sub-Committee of Logistics; the sub-Committee of Communication and Culture; the sub-Committee of Security, Health care; and the Secretary Committee of National ASEAN 2020. These sub-Committees have organized meetings to analyze the given tasks and to make the overall plan and action plans to be submitted to the National ASEAN 2020. 

Vietnamese National ASEAN 2020 Committee organized the Meeting of ASEAN Community Pillars, chaired by the Chairman of the Committee, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Pham Binh Minh and many other Ministers working in the relating fields, to discuss and identify the remaining issues and the approach to solutions to improve the effectiveness of Vietnam’s ASEAN Community Chairmanship. Besides, Vietnam also consults international experts, scholars, and policy-makers about the initiatives to sharpen the identities and roles of ASEAN in the region. 

To assess the preparation of Vietnam in the role of Chairman of ASEAN 2020, Mr. Shahriman Lockman, the senior researcher of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia, frankly asserted that: “Although ASEAN reaches to high level of consensus, its actions have not been determined yet. In international issues, ASEAN does not have breakthroughs compared to 25 years ago. ASEAN has many structures in the regions, but it has not yet resolved its own problems. Moreover, ASEAN has not yet played the role of the middle-man in global and regional conflicts. The conflict between India and Pakistan is an example[4]”. Based on this analysis, Mr. Lockman said that Vietnam would have to face many difficulties and challenges in ASEAN Chairmanship 2020. The challenges for the bloc are the challenges for Vietnam and vice-versa

The former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, H.E. Marty Natalegawa, said: “Since joining ASEAN, Vietnam had been playing the active and responsible roles, and now becomes a core member of ASEAN. In the current context, ASEAN is facing a lot of challenges in economics, society, and particularly in security and geopolitics … but ASEAN will address these problems together, and Vietnam will well perform the role of the Chairman to lead ASEAN to overcome the difficulties”[5].

Secretary-General of ASEAN Lim Jock Hoi highlighted the achievements of Vietnam recently and said that Vietnam would become one of the prominent economies of the bloc. He strongly believes that Vietnam will perform the roles of ASEAN Chairmanship 2020 with dexterity and will contribute meaningfully to the ASEAN Economic Community[6]

The Bangkok Post of Thailand, on June 11, 2019, published an article which said that Vietnam plays the role of an Asian middle power. Since Vietnam has been elected as the non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, it can improve the case for ASEAN at the stage. The article notes,[7] “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”. It also wrote: “Other countries, including the US, Russia, the EU, India, South Korea, and Australia, plan to promote Vietnam’s maritime security capacity”. The articles emphasized: “As Thailand reaches the half-way point of its time as ASEAN chair, Vietnam has already mapped out the general thrust of its chairmanship”; and “Vietnam will focus on ASEAN community building to strengthen its cohesiveness and continue to narrow the gap between new and old members. Vietnam will also promote linkages of ASEAN various agendas with the UN, especially in the areas of sustainable development and connectivity”.[8]

It can be asserted that Vietnam is ready for the role of ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020. The preparations have been carried out by a fast task force with caution. Three outcomes are achieved as outlined by Vietnamese Prime Minister: First, success in producing the agenda and contents; Second, success in ensuring security, safety, respect-earning, and good preparation of protocol; Third, success in promoting the beautiful images and identities of Vietnam the land and its people in an ASEAN community of development and prosperity[9].

Vietnam should maintain the development momentum of ASEAN, and continue to promote the construction of a stronger ASEAN Community. Importantly, Vietnam must help ASEAN to strengthen internally, and increase its reputation in the region, contributing meaningfully to the common development and in addressing global issues. 

Vietnam’s bid for ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020 has been assessed not only with the perspective of professionalism but also in the organizational capacity. Looking at Vietnam’s preparations for the Chairmanship, ASEAN and global communities should be optimistic that Vietnam will be an excellent Chairman of ASEAN, which will promote solidarity, unity, confidence, and broad and deep integration of ASEAN, contributing to peace and stability offer the region and the world. 


[1] Xem: “Cộng đồng ASEAN chính thức ra đời”,

[2] Xem: “Hướng tới năm Chủ tịch ASEAN 2020”,

[3] “52 năm thành lập ASEAN và những đóng góp của Việt Nam”,






*** The author is the Chairman of Research Committee, Centre for Indian Studies, Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics ***