The year 2020 wrapped up with complicated and multidimensional upheavals that are unprecedented in the regional and global geopolitical-economic environment. As Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc put it, the “ASEAN 2020 ship” navigated through “rough seas” and “heavy thunderstorms” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and was shaken by trade and economic downturns and fierce international strategic competition in the region. Under the guidance of “captain” Vietnam and the joint efforts of member states, partners and friends, the “ASEAN 2020 ship” sailed through challenges, strongly affirming its centrality in the region and enhancing its position and prestige in the international arena.
A long and enduring building process
The concept of “ASEAN centrality” implies that the association always coordinates views and actions in its relations with partners, maintains its “main driver” in cooperation and upholds its central role in shaping the regional cooperation structure. With the advent of the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN centrality has been codified, becoming both the objective and the guiding principle for all ASEAN activities.
ASEAN centrality has been built on the cooperation achievements that ASEAN attained during its formation and development process, from relations with external partners to the successes of regional cooperation frameworks and mechanisms initiated and led by the group. From only five member states initially, ASEAN has gradually expanded to feature 10 Southeast Asian countries. The association has established a dialogue partnership with nine nations, the United Nations and the European Union (EU). ASEAN has spearheaded the establishment of many important forums and mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN+3 process, and the East Asia Summit (EAS), thereby integrating partners in regional dialogue and cooperation processes.
ASEAN’s central role also stems from the ideas, initiatives and agendas proposed and led by the group; from the common principles and standards of conduct that it has developed and shared; and from the benefits brought about by the ASEAN-built mechanisms and frameworks. On the basis of ASEAN’s proposals, many regional cooperation and connection programmes have been implemented, such as free trade agreements and connectivity plans. Dozens of partners have voluntarily joined the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), which is considered ASEAN’s “set of rules” governing inter-state relations in the region. From the harvested achievements and experiences, ASEAN has materialised its centrality in five aspects, including centrality within the bloc itself, in the face of hot regional issues, in relations with major powers and other dialogue partners, in the regional structure, and in dealing with global problems and challenges.
Overcoming unprecedented difficulties and challenges
First of all, the theme of Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship Year 2020, “For a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN”, harmoniously reflected the aspects of ASEAN centrality. Overcoming the difficulties caused by the epidemic, ASEAN continues to firmly maintain its momentum in building the ASEAN Community and promoting the realisation of the goals set in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025. Under the chairmanship of Vietnam, ASEAN flexibly and promptly adjusted its operational methods, converting hundreds of conferences and meetings to the virtual form, thereby maintaining the momentum of dialogue and cooperation in the region.
Secondly, ASEAN continues to assert its role and voice in the issues related to regional peace and security. Faced with the negative effects of competition and friction among major powers, ASEAN’s Foreign Ministers issued a Statement on the Importance of Maintaining Peace and Stability in Southeast Asia, in which they affirmed their commitment to maintaining peace, security, neutrality and stability. With complex issues such as the South China Sea/East Sea, ASEAN always works closely together and maintains consensus and a common voice. ASEAN member states highlights the significant role of international law, especially the role of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) - a legal framework governing all activities in the seas and oceans.
Thirdly, ASEAN continues to expand and deepen its existing partnerships, having agreed to upgrade ASEAN-EU relations to a strategic partnership, while proactively strengthening relations with other partners. ASEAN has agreed to grant the development partnership status to Israel and France, opening opportunities to promote cooperation in the coming time. Also, ASEAN persistently upholds the goals, principles and priorities outlined in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
Fourthly, at the global level, ASEAN has strived to participate in and contribute to solving common challenges and problems. Many of the bloc’s proposals on promoting sustainable development and empowering women have been approved and put into implementation. ASEAN cooperation with the United Nations and relevant authorities continues to be strengthened. The conclusion of the negotiation and signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has helped to enhance trust and motivation in multilateralism and the multilateral trading system.
ASEAN centrality is not an available “privilege”. The bloc can only create and promote its central role through prestige, sincerity, and a stance of “neutrality, peace, dialogue and cooperation” fostered throughout its formation and development journey. As Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at a summary session of the National ASEAN 2020 Committee, Vietnam has become a “solid and reliable prop, especially in the moments when ASEAN faces many difficulties and challenge”. These results will create an important premise for Vietnam and other ASEAN countries to continue steering the “ASEAN ship” through all challenges, towards greater cohesion, better adaptability, and greater victories.