Why 2020 Will Be a Big Year for Vietnam’s Foreign Policy
Over the past few years, Vietnam’s foreign policy has been in focus due to Hanoi’s increasing activism on a range of issues ranging from peacekeeping to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where it is a claimant. 2020 will be a big year that spotlights that, with Vietnam holding a couple of prominent regional and international positions amid a challenging geopolitical environment and a busy period for its domestic politics as well.
Vietnam’s foreign policy since the Doi Moi era of the late 1980s led to a greater emphasis on political and economic integration with the rest of Asia and the wider world. Contemporary Vietnamese foreign policy since then has evolved to include a mix of priorities, including strengthening ties with neighboring countries in the Mekong subregion where Hanoi exercises significant influence, a more active role in the wider Southeast Asian region, and cultivating links with a wide range of major powers, be it newer relationships such as with the United States or older ties with China and Russia which remain important despite lingering challenges.
2020 will see Vietnam holding two key positions simultaneously that will spotlight its foreign policy approach much more so than any usual year: the annually rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which countries vie for on a regional basis and lasts for a two-year term.
To be sure, Vietnam’s holding of these two positions simultaneously is more a matter of circumstance than design – with the ASEAN chairmanship rotating between the ten-member states in alphabetical order and the UNSC non-permanent membership being decided by vote depending on the countries in the mix at the time. And Vietnam has held these positions before: it chaired ASEAN twice since joining it in 1995 (in 1998 and 2010) and it has held the UNSC non-permanent seat once (2008-2009) since it became part of the UN in 1976 following the unification of North and South Vietnam under a socialist government after the Vietnam War.
Nonetheless, Vietnam’s twin ASEAN and UNSC positions in 2020 will ensure that it will be a big year showcasing Vietnam’s role as a middle power in its own right, be it its growing involvement on international issues such as peacekeeping or regional ones such as the shaping of the ASEAN-led regional architecture. The latter issue will be of particular note next year since it will also mark the tenth anniversary of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), first held when Vietnam last hosted ASEAN back in 2010 and now considered as a key forum for discussing regional security issues.
Vietnam’s big year on the global stage will occur in the context of a geopolitical environment that will be long on challenges
Second, Vietnam’s big year on the global stage will occur in the context of a geopolitical environment that will be long on challenges, be it developments such as the heightened competition between the United States and China that continues to consume many Southeast Asian capitals or increasing uncertainty around free trade and multilateralism that Hanoi has been looking to embrace more as part of its effort to integrate with the outside world.
Viewed broadly, this is part of a longer-term trend where Vietnam, like some other fellow Asian middle powers, has found its growing integration with the world to be a double-edged sword: it has vastly expanded its economic growth and alignment network but also made itself more exposed to regional and international developments, be it rising protectionism, as evidenced by the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which Hanoi continues to be part of via the CPTPP, or increased scrutiny on aspects of its foreign relations and its human rights record such as its links to North Korea or its approach to matters like cybersecurity.
If anything, 2020 is expected to see even greater Vietnamese exposure to these wider geopolitical developments. The risk is high that some of Asia’s flashpoints may heat up, whether it be the Korean Peninsula with a potential breakdown in U.S.-North Korea engagement or the South China Sea where China is unlikely to cease the coercive behavior it has been displaying against Vietnam and other Southeast Asian claimant states. And globally, uncertainty is likely to remain on big issues such as the U.S.-China trade war or the populist or protectionist sentiments seen in the Western world.
Vietnam will be in the midst of a key domestic political transition that will also have significant implications for its foreign policy
Third, Vietnam will be in the midst of a key domestic political transition that will also have significant implications for its foreign policy approach as well, with the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) looking to balance various alignments externally and transition to new top political leadership internally at the next Party Congress.
While Vietnam remains a one-party system ruled by the VCP, the country still has its share of domestic politics. Within the Vietnamese political cycle, the seminal event is a National Party Congress held every five years, and the period leading up to it tends to be key for both the transitions of leadership as well evolution of policy. The last National Congress was held in 2016, and the next one is slated for January 2021.
With an eye towards the National Party Congress in January 2021, one can expect that Vietnamese policymakers in 2020 will be even more attentive to the need to carefully calibrate the country’s external relationships and to safeguard key indicators of VCP legitimacy, be it economic growth or the protection of key security interests. And irrespective of Vietnam’s actual foreign policy activity in 2020, policymakers will also have to manage the heightened speculation for most of the year how Vietnamese foreign policy is likely to evolve beyond that, with leadership changes and potential policy shifts occurring at the National Congress.
All this and more will ensure that 2020 will be a big year for Vietnam’s foreign policy. How policymakers both utilize the spotlight that will be cast on the Vietnam’s activities at home and abroad and juggle the other opportunities and challenges the country faces during the year will be key to watch.
Follow Prashanth Parameswaran, Asia Program Global Fellow, on Twitter @TheAsianist.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
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The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more