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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

ASEAN in 2020 – Proactive and
Carlyle A. Thayer
January 8, 2020

Q1. What will be Vietnam’s agenda as ASEAN Chair at the forthcoming meeting of
ASEAN Foreign Ministers?
ANSWER: ASEAN Senior Officials will meet to prepare for the follow-on ASEAN Foreign
Ministers Retreat to be held during 15-17 January. Vietnam needs to prepare for two
broad sets of issues.
First, Vietnam will need to brief other ASEAN members on its five priorities under the
theme Cohesive and Responsive: (1) strengthening of ASEAN unity and solidarity, (2)
intensifying ASEAN’s economic integration and connectivity, (3) promoting ASEAN
identity and awareness, (4) enhancing ASEAN’s global partnership for peace, stability
and sustainable development, and (5) increasing ASEAN’s institutional capacity and
Second, Vietnam will need to ensure continuity with policies reached under the
chairmanship of Thailand. This means following up on the following sets of issues: (1)
ASEAN Community-building, ASEAN Connectivity, ASEAN Integration, Regional
Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and ASEAN Single Window to promote cross-
border trade (2) strengthening relations with ASEAN dialogue partners, especially the
ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership (3) follow up on humanitarian situation in Myanmar
(4) Indo-Pacific Outlook and ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture and (5)
various issues and concerns about recent developments in the South China Sea.
Q2. What are the issues that ASEAN members will raise at ASEAN meetings this year –
domestic issues in Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia and the South China Sea?
ANSWER: For the first quarter of 2020 (January to March), ASEAN members will be
focused on the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat and preparations for the 53rd ASEAN
Ministerial Meeting and the 36th ASEAN Summit scheduled to be held from 6-8 April.
The issue of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State in Myanmar will feature
prominently. Myanmar will give a briefing to ASEAN members at the Foreign Ministers
Retreat on developments since last year. A key issue is the continuing role of ASEAN’s
Secretary General in the Needs Assessment Mission and the voluntary return of
displaced persons.
It is unlikely that specific internal issues in Indonesia and Malaysia will be raised.
Human rights will be discussed at the thirtieth meeting of the ASEAN

Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in February. Transboundary haze

are likely to be raised by relevant technical groups, particularly in the Mekong Sub-
The issue of Timor-Leste’s membership in ASEAN will be discussed in the second
quarter of the year.
The South China Sea issue will continue to attract high attention because of recent
Chinese assertiveness and intimidation and on-going negotiations for a South China
Sea Code of Conduct.
The ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the Declaration on
Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (JWG-DOC) will hold its thirty-first meeting
from 4-6 February. The JWG-DOC is scheduled to hold its thirty-second meeting in
May/June followed by the nineteenth Senior Officials Meeting on the Implementation
on the DOC. It is likely that several claimant states such as Vietnam, Malaysia and
possibly Indonesia will raise concerns over “recent developments.”
ASEAN members will come under pressure by China to speed up negotiations and
conclude the second of three readings of the Single Draft Negotiating Text.
Q3. Which issues pose major challenges to Vietnam as ASEAN Chair?
ANSWER: The South China Sea dispute will be the most difficult issue for Vietnam as
ASEAN Chair because it is a claimant state and because it has been subject to the brunt
of Chinese violations of Vietnam’s sovereign rights. Four countries have been subject
to differing amounts of Chinese intimidation – Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and
Indonesia. But so far these four countries have not been able to find common ground.
Indonesia refused to discuss this issue with China for fear of legitimizing China’s
claims. The Philippines bandwagons with China in the hopes of deflecting Chinese
Another major challenge for Vietnam lies in strengthening ASEAN’s relations with the
United States. President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to
attend last year’s ASEAN-US leaders’ meeting. Seven ASEAN states declined to send
their heads of government to meet Trump’s nominated stand-in. President Trump has
now invited all ASEAN members to a special leaders’ meeting in the first quarter of
this year (January-March). If Vietnam cannot get consensus from ASEAN members on
the timing of this meeting, it is likely that this year’s ASEAN-US leaders’ meeting in
November will be a repeat of last year’s no show by President Trump. The US will hold
its presidential election on second November. If Trump wins it is unlikely he will make
the trip to Southeast Asia. If he loses, the new US president will not take office until
Q4. How should Vietnam address those issues to achieve the best results?
ANSWER: Vietnam needs to prioritize and operationalize the five main objectives it
has set out for its chairmanship. Vietnam needs to consult widely on the issues it will
face on the Track 1 (government officials), Track 1.5 (government officials in their
private capacity and non-government specialists) and Track 2 (regional and foreign
non-government specialists) levels.

These consultations should be aimed at developing new thinking on old issues in order
to ensure that ASEAN legacy programs inherited from Thailand are implemented.
Vietnam cannot hope to achieve all its objectives in one year. It thus has to lay the
foundation for its current priorities to take root and develop under subsequent ASEAN
Finally, and most important, Vietnam needs to provide proactive leadership to reach
its objectives by building consensus.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “ASEAN in 2020 – Proactive and Responsive,”

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other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
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