Vietnam’s 25 years of ASEAN membership and the stage ahead

Assoc Prof. Dr. DANG CAM TU
Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam
Monday, May 24, 2021 10:34

Communist Review - On July 28, 1995, Vietnam officially joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN). Over the past 25 years of taking part in ASEAN, from a raw member, Vietnam has gradually become an active, self-motivated and responsible one in joint activities in company with increasingly significant and practical contribution towards the Association’s maturity and growth. In the coming time, ASEAN continues to keep its role as an important factor in dealing with security and development issue in the region. Simultaneously, ASEAN has been given top priority in the implementation of Vietnam’s policy on raising multilateral foreign relations, which emphasizes its participation in building and shaping multilateral institutions actively, proactively as well as in co-ordination with ASEAN countries to build a powerful ASEAN Community responsibly.

Politburo member, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Chairman of ASEAN 2020 delivers the opening speech at the 36th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi in June 26th, 2020 _Photo: VNA

Joining ASEAN: The result of the Vietnam Communist Party’s mind and foreign policies renewal process

Vietnam’s decision of acceding to ASEAN is result of Vietnam Communist Party’s foreign relations thinking innovation, including a renewed awareness of the situation and international relations in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnam Communist Party’s 6th congress in 1986 proposed the policy labelled “Expanding relations with all countries on the principles of peaceful coexistence”, marking the first stage in shifting foreign relations thinking in period of revolution. In the region, Vietnam “wants and is willing to work with countries in the region to negotiate and resolve issues in Southeast Asia, establish peaceful coexistence and build Southeast Asia into a region of peace, stability and cooperation”(2). The Resolution No.13/NQ-TW, dated May 20th, 1988 of the 6th Politburo of the Party’s Central Committee, on “Duties and foreign policies in the new situation” underscored peace and economic development as the supreme interest, followed by the policy of changing the struggle from confrontation to struggle and coexistence in peace(3). This view kept on maintaining in the Report of the 6th plenum of the 6th Central Committee, (March 1989) and Platform on National Construction in the period of transition to socialism (1991) of Communist Party of Vietnam.

The meaning of these aforementioned guidelines is that Vietnam has correctly identified the importance of Southeast Asian security, associating the peace and stability of the region with Vietnam’s security and development. Vietnam chose ASEAN countries to initiate a dialogue to resolve the issue of Cambodia. With Indonesia’s advocacy efforts, ASEAN organized Jakarta Informal Meetings (JIM) with the participation of ASEAN, Vietnam, Laos, and four Cambodian parties in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, comprising JIM-1 (July 1988), JIM-2 (February 1989), JIM-3 (February 1990) to find a political solution to Cambodia problem(4). In spite of the limited practical result, these informal meetings demonstrated ASEAN’s regional conflict solving role. And it was also the first time that representatives of most Southeast Asian countries were able to discuss directly the issue of Cambodia. After that, ASEAN countries lifted the embargo laid by the U.S and the West to improve relation with Vietnam, even when the Cambodia problem had not been resolved(5).

The 7th Congress of Communist Party of Vietnam (1991) raised the spirit “Vietnam want to be friends with all countries in the world community, striving for peace, independence and development”, and put forward the guideline “Developing friendly relations with Southeast Asian and Asia-Pacific countries, striving for a peaceful, friendly and cooperative Southeast Asia” (6). This can be seen as an affirmation of Vietnam’s new foreign relation policy of willingness to develop friendly relations with ASEAN countries based on national interests. This also illustrates grasping the trend of strengthening cooperation and linkages in the region and properly assessing the ASEAN countries’ adjustment of policy from confrontation to cooperation with Vietnam. The 1989 statement by Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan “turning the Indochina from a battlefield to a marketplace” contributed to blurring the boundaries of geopolitical division in Southeast Asian, creating opportunities to bring ASEAN and Vietnam closer (7). The 7th plenum of the 3rd Central Committee (1992) set out the policy of participating in dialogue forums with ASEAN and investigating the membership of ASEAN in the future (8).

Vietnam fostered the process of joining ASEAN with implementation of new foreign policies and guidelines. In 1992, at the 4th ASEAN Summit, Vietnam signed a document to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), became an observer of ASEAN, and attended the annual ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meetings as well as participated in specialized cooperation on five aspects, namely science and technology, environment, medicine, culture and information as well as social development. In 1993, on the occasion of his visit to Thailand, Do Muoi, General Secretary, Central Committee of Communist Party of Vietnam announced a four-point policy to ASEAN, expressed the expectation of “willing to join ASEAN at an appropriate time” (9). In the official visit to Indonesia in May 1994, Le Duc Anh, president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, announced that Vietnam was promoting the necessary work to early become an ASEAN full member”(10). In October 17th, 1994, Nguyen Manh Cam, Minister of Vietnam Foreign Affairs sent a letter to Chairman of ASEAN Standing Committee to officially request to admit Vietnam to membership in ASEAN. The admission ceremony of Vietnam to become the seventh member of ASEAN took place on July 28, 1995, at the 28th ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting held in Brunei.

The decision to join ASEAN is a clear result and demonstration of Vietnam’s foreign relation path of peace, independence, autonomy, diversification and multilateralization as well as regional and international integration in the post-Cold War period. The openning of relations with ASEAN both stemmed from the urgent need to disrupt economic encirclement and political isolation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to serve the long-term strategic interests of Vietnam.

Being an ASEAN member facilitates Vietnam creating and maintaining peaceful, stable and propitious environment for economic growth, improving national industrialization and modernization in the context of regional integration and globalization which takes place rapidly and strongly in various field. Through active participation in determining the development direction and major decisions of ASEAN, Vietnam accelerates effectively the national priorities and interests that are in line with the common interests of the region, increasing capacity to address traditional and non-traditional security challenges, and strengthening position and role in regional and international affairs based on coordination of stances and actions among Member States. In particular, Vietnam and other ASEAN member countries have upheld the principle of dispute settlement by peaceful means, making a significant contribution to enhancing the peace, stability and cooperation in Southeast Asia. ASEAN's shared stance and central role have enabled Vietnam to apply regional principles and mechanisms to consolidate its viewpoint and position in safeguarding national sovereignty, sovereign rights and interests in the East Sea.

Joining ASEAN, Vietnam can also take advantage of cooperation, support and resources from ASEAN as well as partners to serve purposes namely socio-economic development, especially in hunger eradication and poverty reduction, human resources development, labor productivity and ability of national competitiveness enhancement. They all contribute to improve people's lives through raising social welfare and security, harmonizing educational standards and criteria for recognition of qualifications as well as vocational skills among ASEAN countries. Viet Nam's skilled workers enjoy freedom of movement and find more favorable employment opportunities in the region. The standard level of Vietnam in terms of quality of goods, services, human resources, protection of workers' rights and health care has also been improved. Management experience and capacity to deal with transnational issues, such as environment, natural disasters, climate change and epidemics, are all strengthened.

ASEAN integration also gives Vietnam momentum for expanding international economic linkages. ASEAN is an important import-export market and source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the period when Vietnam began to open its economy. Economic cooperation in ASEAN facilitates Vietnam to foster investment and expand markets for Vietnamese merchandise and services exported to ASEAN nations and its partners. The total foreign trade turnover between Vietnam and ASEAN becomes higher with every passing day, reaching 23.4 billion USD in 2019(11). ASEAN is currently Vietnam's fourth largest export market after the US, the European Union (EU) and China. ASEAN also assists Vietnam in closing the gap in development and better connecting with economies inside and outside the region. Participating in the ASEAN economic linkage has motivated Vietnam to perfect the market economy, improve the business environment, restructure the economy, and take advantage of the support from ASEAN cooperation programs on narrowing development gap and cooperation in the Mekong sub-region, creating the basis for Vietnam to join in next-generation free trade agreements (FTAs), such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), European Union - Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

ASEAN is a “playing field” that helps Vietnam gain more experience in international integration and a better position to participate and play an active role in multilateral cooperation organizations on a larger scale, such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), World Trade Organization (WTO) and United Nations. Participation in ASEAN cooperation and association is an opportunity for Vietnam training cadre contingents working in a multilateral environment, regional and international integration, and improving the performance of the organizational apparatus and working style, creating positive changes in formulating and finalizing domestic policies, laws and procedures to be more suitable with the requirements of increasingly comprehensive and extensive international integration. Equally important, ASEAN helps to increase Vietnam's geostrategic value. Membership of ASEAN facilitates Vietnam’s favorable conditions to strengthen and expand relations with major countries and power centers in the world, such as the US, China, Japan, and the EU. The past 25 years, in a word, have affirmed the policy of joining ASEAN as a correct, timely, and important strategic decision of Vietnam.

Contribution of Vietnam in ASEAN

Immediately after joining ASEAN, Vietnam’s actively promoted the admission of Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia into ASEAN which contributed to the realization of the ASEAN “big family” dream embraced 10 countries in Southeast Asia. ASEAN-10 is the beginning of a new phase of ASEAN's qualitative development, from a sub-regional organization to a Southeast Asian organization, laying the foundation for the ASEAN Community (AC) construction process (12). Vietnam's specific contributions to ASEAN have been shown through the marks of completing rotating tasks fulfilment, including hosting the 6th ASEAN Summit (1998); Chairman of the Standing Committee of ASEAN for the term 2000 - 2001; ASEAN  2010 Chair; Coordinating relations between ASEAN and key partners such as the US, Russia, EU, India and Japan; and the ASEAN 2020 Chair.

In the AC building process, Vietnam has always played a pivotal role in defining ASEAN's development goals and directions and formulating major decisions, such as the ASEAN Vision 2020 (1997) and Vision implementation plans (1998 Hanoi Plan of Action and Vientiane Action Programme 2004), ASEAN Charter (2007), AC Roadmap (2009 - 2015), AC Vision 2025, implementation plans on each pillar (2015) and many other important agreements, including the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC).

At the 34th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Hanoi Capital (2001), Vietnam, as Chairman of the ASEAN Standing Committee, actively proposed Hanoi Declaration on narrowing the development gap towards closer integration of ASEAN which was ratified by other countries. This statement aimed at concretizing and implementing the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) which was endorsed by the Association's senior leaders in 2000. Thereafter, as Chairman of the IAI Task Force, Vietnam promote ASEAN countries to reach the goals of the IAI which  are important contents to realize AC in general and the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) in particular, creates a framework and foundation for the process of building and completing AC in the following period. It can be said that Vietnam has fully participated in the AC building process from the phase of formulating ideas, planning the way to the implementation of the basic documents, thereby affirming the capacity and gradually improving the position in ASEAN(13).

Vietnam has played an active and pivotal role in strengthening and enhancing solidarity and internal unity within ASEAN. Vietnam together with other members, especially the founding members, deftly handles the differences that arise between member nations, and promote a common stance and voice in regional affairs. Vietnam has made many important contributions to the expansion of relations and promote cooperation between ASEAN and its partners, enhancing ASEAN's international role and position, especially its central and decisive role in regional forums, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Cooperation Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM+). In particular, Vietnam has made many impressive hallmarks which helps to enhance the value and efficiency of these forums with remarkable events such as fruitfully promoting the EAS expansion for participation of Russia and the United States, successfully mobilizing and chairing the first ADMM+ in Hanoi, developing the 2010 Hanoi Plan of Action to implement the ARF Vision Statement. Vietnam's contribution was also reflected in the core role in the process of making the Work Plan on maintaining and strengthening ASEAN’s Central Role (2009) and the revised ASEAN Central Role Work Plan (2015), having a part in promoting regional architecture on the basis of processes dominated by ASEAN.

Assuming 2020 ASEAN Chairmanship, Vietnam took responsibility for coordinating of ASEAN activities in 2020, guiding programs and plans of action, priorities and initiatives to operate AC as well as relations between ASEAN and member nations and external partner countries. The theme “Cohesion and Proactive Adaptation” which was selected by Vietnam and supported by other member countries reflects a common desire for an ASEAN standing firm in the face of the impacts of the world and the region’s complicated changes and developments. Simultaneously, the theme demonstrates Vietnam's willingness to actively contribute to the strength of the Community. The outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic has posed adverse impacts, which are a great test of ASEAN cohesion and resilience as well as Vietnam's ability to lead as ASEAN Chair. In 2020, Vietnam successfully mobilized and organized online meetings within the framework of ASEAN and between ASEAN and its partners - an unprecedented fact in ASEAN's development history. The results of these meetings have had a part in maintaining the AC building process, consolidating ASEAN's role in speeding up cooperation in response to problems created by COVID-19 epidemic as well as other important issues. At the same time, they have manifested the capacity and position of Vietnam in the regional community.

Vietnam in ASEAN Community in the next time

25 years of being ASEAN member, Vietnam has affirmed position of an active and responsible member as well as the principal role in ASEAN, accumulating good experience in regional integration, ameliorating internal mechanism and training contingent of cadres who basically meet requirements of in-depth international integration. At the same time, ASEAN has become a more close-kit entity turning towards 2025 Community Vision. Other member states and Vietnam own mutual fundamental and long-term interest, such as: keep the peaceful and stable environment, foster ASEAN linkage and reinforce AC role for security and development targets. These are auspicious fundamental factors of Vietnam participation in AC complying with policy of vigorously taking part in constructing and fixation of multilateral institution, proactively, actively and responsibly together with ASEAN nations to build a firm AC.

However, the challenges ahead should not be discounted. In economic terms, it is the difference in the level of economic and infrastructure development. The competition of other member countries, especially in the field of export and attracting foreign investment, tends to increase. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese economic competitiveness has not been high, the hard and soft infrastructure witnessed limitation, production development has suffered low level, the export products are mainly raw materials, goods to preliminary treatment, processing. These kinds of products are likely to increasingly depend on FDI. The proportion of skilled workers in the total labor force is low (14).

Regarding politics - security, strategic competition between major countries, especially the US and China, tends to be more intense, resulting in distrust, division, polarization, reducing roles and placing multilateral regime facing many difficulties. In that context, maintaining ASEAN's solidarity, unity and leading role in the region copes with many challenges, as differences survive among member nations in terms of views, interests and strategic calculations, especially in relations with major countries, prolonging and raising objections in reaching consensus. The promotion of Vietnam's core role in ASEAN, therefore, may also face more obstacles.

In addition, non-traditional security issues, such as climate change, the environment, and epidemics, especially the COVID-19 pandemic is and will create many problems within each country as well as relations between nations. They all force governments to focus resources and adjust policies to tackle and adapt. The level of interest and resource investment in regional integration may therefore decrease.

Ultimately, the development of ASEAN after more than half a century of Association establishment, 5 years of Community foundation, and the Vietnam position after 25 years of ASEAN’s membership have raised new requirements for Vietnam's participation in AC. In the coming time, ASEAN continues to possess an essential position and role in the overall external policy of Vietnam, being the focus in the strategic orientation of enhancing multilateral foreign relations and comprehensive and in-depth international integration of Vietnam(15). Vietnam's enhancement of the proactive and effective participation in ASEAN has become increasingly strategic significant in the context of the rapidly evolving, complex and unforeseen world and regional situation. It has been also likely to change in other members’ ASEAN policies as well as participation.

To seize the opportunities and resolve the challenges posed when moving towards a more proactive and active role in ASEAN, Vietnam's thinking and actions need to be continuously renewed to keep pace with the changes of situation. Intensely, proper awareness of ASEAN's position, role and capabilities in international relations in the Asia-Pacific region, the Indo-Pacific in general and in Vietnam's foreign career in particular is necessary to be continuously strengthened, especially when the region is undergoing many profound changes, the view and pursuit of Vietnam's interests in terms of security, development and position are also different from the previous period. Raising the right conscious of ASEAN's cooperation model and the strategic importance to Vietnam is the foundation for determining the appropriate level of interest and investment for joining ASEAN cooperation.

Document of the 12th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (2016) stated that “proactively, actively and responsibly together with ASEAN countries to build a strong Community” is one of the priorities in the foreign direction and mission(16). Leaders of the Communist Party and State of Vietnam have always affirmed that ASEAN is an essential pillar in Vietnam's foreign policy(17). In the coming time, ASEAN should continue to be recognized and affirmed as the pillar and top priority in Vietnam's foreign policy and relations.

On the basis of such perception, Vietnam's specific external tasks related to ASEAN should continue to be vigorously implemented in the coming years, including: firstly, working together to build strong and effective AC, attach much importance to protecting ASEAN's solidarity, unity and fundamentals, ensure and enhance the quality of ASEAN's activities under the motto “unity in diversity”; second, combining with other members in reinforcing ASEAN's centrality in economic and security mechanisms in the evolving Indo-Pacific region; thirdly, actively participating and promote roles in ASEAN's common multilateral mechanisms, ASEAN plus mechanisms, and sub-regional mechanisms within ASEAN; fourth, persevere with other ASEAN nations to speed up the full implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and proceed to develop a Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC).

Implement these tasks, improve efficiency, clearly define the focus, main point and priorities in each specific area, issue, time, and closely and comprehensively coordinate and cooperate between bilateral and multilateral channels, state diplomacy and people’s diplomacy, and other foreign relations channels, mobilize the participation and contribution of the entire political system, businesses and people in ASEAN cooperation and association activities. They are all the key factor for Vietnam keeping on bringing its role into full play in the Community on the way ahead.


(1), (2) Communist Party of Vietnam: Documents of the 6th National Congress, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1987, p. 225, p. 108

(3) Le Viet Duyen: Innovation process of Vietnam's foreign policy to ASEAN from 1986 to 2016, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2017, p. 81-82.

(4) Narayanan Ganesan: Conjunctures and Continuities in Southeast Asian Politics, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2013, p. 110

(5) Nguyen Phuong Binh (Chief author): Preventive Diplomacy in Southeast Asia, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, 2003, p. 79

6) Communist Party of Vietnam: Documents of the 7th National Congress, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, p. 147.

(7) Le Hong Hiep: “ASEAN at 50: The View from Vietnam”, The Aspistrategist, August 11, 2017

(8) Le Viet Duyen: The innovation process of Vietnam's foreign policy to ASEAN from 1986 to 2016, ibid., p. 89

(9) Do Muoi: “Four-point policy on ASEAN”, People's Army Newspaper, October 17, 1993.

(10) Pham Quang Minh: Renewal foreign policy of Vietnam (1986 - 2010), World Publishers, Hanoi, 2012, p. 83.

(11) “Total foreign trade turnover in 2019 will exceed 500 billion USD”, Vietnam Government Portal, December 12, 2019.

(12) Pham Binh Minh: “ASEAN Community 2015 forming and Vietnam’s contribution mark”, Journal of International Studies, No. 2 (105), June 2016, p. 15.

13) Dang Cam Tu: “ASEAN Political-Security Community after 2015 and participation of Vietnam”, Journal of International Studies, No. 3 (88), 2014, p. 176 - 177

(14) “Increasing labor productivity in  Vietnam in the context of the Industrial Revolution 4.0”, Vietnam Journal of Science, Technology and Engineering, dated January 17, 2020.

(15) Communist Party of Vietnam: Document of the 12th National Congress, Office of the Party Central Committee, Hanoi, 2016, p. 35; Directive No. 25-CT/TW, dated August 8, 2018, of the Secretariat, on Boosting and elevating multilateral diplomacy to 2030.

(16) Communist Party of Vietnam: Document of the 12th National Congress, Office of the Party Central Committee, Hanoi, 2016, p.154

(17) “Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc: ASEAN is the mainstay of Vietnam's foreign policy”, Tuoi Tre News, August 8, 2020; See also Pham Binh Minh, “Towards a united, strong and open ASEAN Community,” Journal of International Studies, No. 3 (90), 2012

This article was published in the Communist Review No. 951 (October 2020)