Can Vietnam’s position as a chair of ASEAN improve US-ASEAN ties?

President Donald J. Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27, 2019.President Donald J. Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27, 2019. Photo:US Department of State

US-ASEAN ties have deteriorated under President Donald Trump. Can Vietnam’s position as ASEAN chair offer an opportunity to hit reset?

By Niranjan Marjani

Vietnam’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) brings new challenges and opportunities. As a nation, Vietnam is managing a maritime dispute with China. As chair, Vietnam has to work towards bridging the gaps between ASEAN members. Appropriately, the ASEAN theme for 2020 is ‘Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN’ which beckons a unified approach to address challenges. But Vietnam has the difficult task of bringing this into reality.

US-ASEAN ties have deteriorated of late

Relations between the US and ASEAN have deteriorated since Donald Trump took office. The US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), hurting the economic security of Southeast Asian nations that saw the TPP as an opportunity to gain access to new export markets. For ASEAN nations, the TPP was a barometer for US commitment to the region. The withdrawal, therefore, sent a clear message to ASEAN leaders.

Trump also did not attend the US-ASEAN summits in 2018 and 2019. Vice President Mike Pence represented the US in 2018 while National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien attended in 2019. The majority of ASEAN leaders refused to meet Robert O’Brien and demanded a meeting between equals.

The Trump administration’s approach to Southeast Asia has traced its strategy with many other international organizations. Trump has traded barbs with the European Union (EU), NATO and the United Nations. The current US administration prefers bilateral engagements to institutional process. This trend played out in its approach to Southeast Asia, with the US engaging selectively with some countries instead rather than collectively engaging with ASEAN as an organization.

What would the US gain by resetting its ties with ASEAN?

The US-China rivalry shapes the former’s engagement with the ASEAN region. While the US pursues freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and seeks to mitigate China’s dominance in the region, but its indifference towards ASEAN hands China a diplomatic advantage.

This is evident from the comparison between the US and Chinese economic engagement with ASEAN nations. US-ASEAN trade was US$333 billion in 2018. During the same period, China-ASEAN trade was $587.87 billion. US foreign direct investment (FDI) to the ASEAN region was around $8 billion in 2018 while Chinese investment stood at almost$10 billion. China’s increasing economic clout among ASEAN nations further weakens the US position in the region.

US President Donald Trump with ASEAN’s heads of state at the ASEAN-US Summit in November 2017.
Photo: White House

The Trump administration has focused more on forging relations with individual countries as a bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific. This is evident from engagement with countries like Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand.

Can Vietnam foster closer US-ASEAN relations as ASEAN chair?

Vietnam is among six countries in Southeast Asia that have territorial claims opposing China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Tensions have been rising since July when Chinese Coast Guard Ships entered Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Vietnam’s territorial disputes with China have led the former to develop close strategic ties with the US. For Vietnam, like many ASEAN nations, it sees its ties with the US are a counterbalance to China.

Since Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam in 2017, there have been regular interactions between Vietnam and the US over strategic issues. The latest engagement was the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Da Nang Port in Vietnam.

The US president has repeatedly framed US-Chinese relations as a zero-sum endeavour. Vietnam has made sure it has aligned itself with Trump over Xi. But not all ASEAN nation’s share Vietnam’s affinity for the US. One of the major obstacles to improved US-ASEAN ties is the existing divisions within the ASEAN bloc. While other South China Sea claimants oppose China’s territorial claims, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remains a major obstacle to ASEAN unity. Nations that stand to gain substantially from Chinese funded infrastructure projects have aligned their diplomatic engagements with ASEAN with Beijing’s interest.

Cambodia, for example, has refused to endorse statements from the bloc that might upset Beijing.

As ASEAN Chair and as an emerging regional economy with close ties to the US, Vietnam can play a leading role in restoring cordial US-ASEAN relations. Vietnam should adopt a multi-pronged approach. Firstly, Vietnam must promote ASEAN as an attractive and competitive investment destination. The fallout from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated that Donald Trump views diplomacy through the lens of economic gain.  Deeper US economic engagement in Southeast Asia would see the US bring its foreign policy in line with its economic interests.

The second prong relies on Vietnam’s ability to foster unity among ASEAN nations. Vietnam must persuade other ASEAN nations that closer ties with the US will bring more long-term gains to the region. This will be no easy task when authoritarian regimes across the region know that US economic and humanitarian engagement can come with conditions regarding democratic protections and a commitment to upholding human rights. Vietnam can use territorial disputes with China as a platform to unite those that oppose Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. It will have a harder time with non-claimants like Cambodia, who are already looking to deepen their engagement with China following a rift with the EU human rights and the ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement.

While bilateral relations between Vietnam and the US have been strong, US interest in building strong relations with ASEAN, an institution, looks unlikely at present.

About the Author

Niranjan Marjani
Niranjan Marjani is an Independent journalist and researcher based in Vadodara, India. His areas of specialisation are international relations and geopolitics.