The Khmer Times, 14 March 2019
Amidst rising geopolitical uncertainties and risks, small states are struggling to survive and stay relevant. Some have opted for a hedging strategy; others choose to align themselves with a major power.
Vietnam has carefully and smartly balanced its external relations with all major powers. A hedging strategy has been the core foreign policy of the country for it has effectively maintained its traditional relationship with China while expanding its strategic cooperation with Japan, the US, India, and Russia.
Vietnam has pursued a foreign policy of strategic diversification and economic pragmatism since the late 1990s and its foreign policy is highly pragmatic, outward looking, and future-oriented.
Hanoi regards Asean as the most important regional multilateral institution in strengthening regional peace and stability, honestly mediating the differences between regional countries, and forging a rules-based international system.
Maintaining an open and inclusive regional architecture is one of the key objectives and interests of Vietnam’s foreign policy.
Concerning the evolving concept on the Indo-Pacific being led by the US and Japan, Vietnam has taken a cautious approach by using the term “Indo-Asia-Pacific” instead of “Indo-Pacific”. This by itself reflects Vietnam’s intention of promoting an inclusive regionalism.
“The ever-closer economic, political, and cultural ties between the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean will create a new driver for growth and help transform the Asian Century into the Indo-Asia-Pacific Century,” stated Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang during his three-day state visit to India last week.
The region should be regarded as “a common space of co-existence and development”, he added. The message clearly implies that major powers should not aim to build a regional hegemonic power.
According to the remarks by Mr Tran, Vietnam has suggested several principles and elements to realise the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”. First, regional countries need to promote and respect an open and a rules-based regional architecture.
Second, the freedom of navigation has to be maintained and free flow of trade and investment needs to be facilitated. Rising protectionism and economic nationalism in the US poses significant threat to a liberal global economic order.
Since the Trump administration came into power, regional countries have been adapting to changes by fostering and deepening regional economic integration without the presence of the US.
Third, there is a need to build “effective mechanisms to maintain peace, stability, and the rule of law”, taking into consideration that there is no effective mechanism to prevent and resolve conflicts and disputes in the region.
Fourth, Asean’s role needs to be recognised and strengthened in the era of “Indo-Asia-Pacific”. As it is, Asean member countries are concerned that the US-led Indo-Pacific is not inclusive.
Any new initiative in the region will not be sustainable without the support from Asean. Historically, the regional grouping has played a crucial role in promoting political trust and cooperation.
It is expected that Asean will play a more critical role in the region by embracing preventive diplomacy and a mechanism for conflict resolution. It also must have more flexibility in establishing a High Council, as enshrined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, to mediate in regional disputes or conflicts.
There are lessons and Asean needs to learn from the sovereignty disputes between its two member countries, Cambodia and Thailand, in 2008 and 2011.
Ensuring both economic and security interests of its member countries is critical to the future relevance of Asean.
At the sub-regional level, the Mekong region has also become a new growth center and strategic gravity in Southeast Asia.
Geographically located between the two Asian giants – China and India – the Mekong region is at the heart of the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The strategic and economic value of the Mekong region will increase in tandem with the rising influence of China and India.
Vietnam’s leadership role in the Mekong region is significant, while Thailand is facing complex domestic political constraints and the lack of political leadership. Other Mekong countries, like Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar, are focused more on domestic issues and challenges.
Robust economic and defense diplomacy are the main vehicles for Vietnam to exert its regional influence and leadership in the region.
Vietnam’s view and approach towards the Indo-Asia-Pacific reflects the ideals of an open and inclusive regional mechanism.
Small states in the region need to stay united and forge a common approach towards the Indo-Asia-Pacific so that they become more resilient and remain strategically relevant amidst rivalry among the major powers.