On November 4, the ASEAN chair’s gavel was passed to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam at the closing ceremony of the grouping’s annual summit in Bangkok. Vietnam will serve as the chair of ASEAN, the most important international organization in Southeast Asia, through 2020. This will be a crucial year for the grouping as it attempts to reach the goals set forth in the ASEAN Vision 2020, which was released in 1997 and envisions the establishment of a region of peace, prosperity, and stability. It is especially significant for Vietnam because the chairmanship will offer a unique opportunity to engage the region to take constructive action on the South China Sea disputes which have long threatened regional peace and security. With the chairmanship in hand, now is the time for Hanoi to be more active in fulfilling both its regional and its national responsibilities in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea Is an ASEAN Problem

Vietnam will need to work hard to convince others in the region that ASEAN must take action on the South China Sea. On October 9, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia stated that certain countries should not expect ASEAN to act like a court and solve the problems in the South China Sea, as it is not the function of the organization. This is partly true—ASEAN is not an international judicial body. But that does not mean that ASEAN can avoid its responsibility to facilitate the settlement of disputes.

The ASEAN Charter makes clear that issues such as the disputes in the South China Sea are of concern to all of ASEAN. According to Article 1 of the charter, one of the organization’s primary purposes is to “maintain and enhance peace, security and stability…in the region.” The term “the region” interpreted per Article 2 of the charter, can be understood as referring to all geographical locations where member states enjoy sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction, including the land, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, and airspace of all ASEAN countries. Thus, the South China Sea neatly falls into the geographical sphere of ASEAN.

Second, the terms “peace, security, and stability” repeatedly mentioned in the charter signify a broad ambitious mission of ASEAN. For example, in the preamble, it is stated that its is ASEAN’s desire and collective will “to live in a region of lasting peace, security, and stability, sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and social progress.” Article 1.8 stipulates further that ASEAN must respond effectively to all forms of threats. The meaning of those terms goes beyond the scope of traditional security, which is related solely to situations of armed conflict. In fact, they express the role of ASEAN in any situation which may cause harm to any aspect of the region, including economic, political, social, or even environmental aspects. It is not difficult to prove that the situation in the South China Sea is harming many of these regional interests, whose defense is defined as being a primary purpose of ASEAN. Therefore, the South China Sea disputes are the concern of the whole group, and ASEAN must play a role in their settlement accordingly.

Even more directly, Article 2 of the charter addresses the principles of cooperation, shared commitment, and collective responsibility to protect the harmonious and prosperous environment of the region. It is also an obligation of ASEAN member states, according to Article 5, to take all necessary measures to implement the provisions of the charter. Hence member states of the group must acknowledge the fact that they cannot abdicate a shared responsibility to address the situation in the South China Sea. The state serving as chair has a particular responsibility to organize action to this effect.

Vietnam’s Role as Chair

While it will be no easy task for Vietnam to move ASEAN to take action on the South China Sea, holding the post of the chair will give Hanoi certain powers to do so. The first will be its role in hosting the ASEAN summits and various high-level meetings during the year. At these meetings, Vietnam will enjoy the capacity to initiate discussion on subjects of its choosing, including the South China Sea. Additionally, side events organized by Vietnam during those meetings will give Hanoi an opportunity to call for support from its closest neighbors, Cambodia and Laos, in order to avoid the disunity and failures of previous ASEAN meetings in 2012 and 2016.

Second, as the chair, Vietnam will be empowered to make arrangements for urgent situations and crises affecting the group. Vietnam has chosen “cohesive and responsive” as the theme for its chairmanship year, which is a promising approach for ASEAN to the “bullying attitudes of China” toward member states at sea.

Finally, China has urged ASEAN members to work with it to finalize a draft Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and prepare for its adoption in 2021, making 2020 a crucial year for negotiations. Vietnam, as the chair, will represent the group with external partners. Hanoi can leverage this chance to enhance cooperation among the member states to form a joint ASEAN position which can counterbalance the interests of Beijing in the South China Sea.

ASEAN has an obligation to play a role in the settlement of the South China Sea disputes. It is also the shared responsibility of the member states to facilitate the process, none more so than its incoming chair, Vietnam. Given the unique advantages it will enjoy in this position, as well as the recent standoff with China over oil and gas exploration in Vietnamese waters, Hanoi can be expected to make the most of its chair year.

About Pham Ngoc Minh Trang

Pham Ngoc Minh Trang is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law.