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Vietnam Hosts Final Summit as ASEAN Chair

October 27, 2010

This is the loveliest time to be in Hanoi. The weather is cooler, and the light takes on a soft, golden glow spilling over the ochre walls of the numerous stately colonial buildings around the city. It makes the perfect setting as Vietnam ends its year of ASEAN chairmanship and hosts the 17th ASEAN Summit and 11 other related multilateral events from October 28-30 in Hanoi.

Hanoi

Vietnam's capital Hanoi gears up for the 17th ASEAN Summit.

Banners boasting the 2010 ASEAN theme “Towards the ASEAN Community:  From Vision to Action” have been fluttering all year across the city. Under the terms of the new ASEAN Charter adopted by the group in 2008, the country chair must now host not one but two ASEAN summits each year, in addition to an astounding number of other task force and working group meetings on issues ranging from trade and defense to labor and youth. The idea is that a more coordinated and robust ASEAN would have more leverage to interact with other regional and global powers in ways that contribute to the security, growth, and prosperity of each of the 10 member countries.

Progress on this front has been slow, however, given ASEAN’s commitment to consensual decision-making and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. Yet this year may well be the year that showcases the strength of ASEAN to make serious headway in regional connectivity, making ASEAN, as a geo-political organization and a region, something to contend with politically and economically.

The year will probably be best remembered by the heightened international attention to territorial disputes in Asia, particularly at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July, when the U.S. and ASEAN member states emphasized the need for multilateral talks over the South China Sea disputes, rather than the Chinese preference for bilateral discussions. The subsequent rise in tension between the U.S. and China was followed by a bitter diplomatic row between China and Japan after Japan detained a Chinese captain whose ship was in the waters around the disputed islands – known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.

It was at the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus 8 (ADMM+8) in mid-October in Hanoi, attended by defense ministers from ASEAN member states as well as from Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the U.S. that China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met separately with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Japan’s Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa as all sides sought to ease the escalating tension. It was an auspicious beginning for ADMM+8  – the Asia-Pacific region’s new security infrastructure – that underscored its potential influential role in addressing challenging regional concerns while recognizing the importance of the U.S. to regional security. While it remains to be seen how effective ADMM+8 will be, analysts have recognized Vietnam’s leadership this year in getting the ADMM+8 off to a good start.

Among all the meetings being held in Hanoi this week, the core events are the 17th ASEAN Summit and the 5th East Asia Summit (EAS), the latter being an initiative by ASEAN to establish a forum for broader strategic dialogue with partners. EAS includes ASEAN, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. This week ASEAN will formally extend permanent membership invitation to the U.S. and Russia. With both the ADMM+8 newly established and the EAS’ membership expanded this year comprising of the same key members, there is a growing sense that ASEAN’s efforts over the years to construct a set of workable dialogue mechanisms and appropriate strategic partners are finally reaching their goals, strengthened by the fact that ASEAN as a grouping and as a region is also perceived by regional and global powers as critical to the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.

As such, it is worth noting that ASEAN summits are increasingly providing the context not only for regional discussions but also for bilateral talks such as those that China will be holding with India and Japan. With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making her second visit to Vietnam this year following her attendance at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, along with the participation of heads of state and governments from around the region and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Vietnam’s capital city is clearly the place to be this week.

And what will be on the agenda for the headlining 17th ASEAN Summit? In addition to discussions on the region’s recovery from the economic crisis, sustainable development, and climate change, ASEAN leaders are expected to consider approving a master plan on ASEAN connectivity, an ambitious effort to transform the region into a hub for tourism, transportation, and ICT as part of larger plans to establish ASEAN as a single market by 2015.

If substantive progress on these issues can be made, then the goal of advancing “From Vision to Action” will be one step closer for the ASEAN community. It will be up to Indonesia who will take over the ASEAN chairmanship from Vietnam this week to push forward ASEAN connectivity in 2011.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. She can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Kim N. B. Ninh | Bio

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