Without doubt, 2020 was a year that posed unprecedented challenges worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic foremost among them.
There were various other unresolved issues including an anti-globalization and free trade trend, increasing protectionism and an undermining of multilateralism.
For Vietnam, in addition to the global challenges, 2020 was a year when it had to shoulder two major international responsibilities – chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2020-2021 term.
The fact that a pandemic was raging and taking lives all over the world made foreign relations tasks even more challenging for Vietnam. The country had to remain focused on tackling the pandemic while maintaining and promoting relationships with other countries as also pushing key agendas.
At the end of the year, however, experts agreed that the nation had quickly adapted to the new situation and successfully completed its foreign affairs tasks.
“Vietnam has been able to catch up with the new developments in the world and move into a new state when participating in foreign affairs,” former Vietnam’s Ambassador to the U.S. Pham Quang Vinh said.
Covid-19 made it difficult for Vietnam to organize meetings, visits, consultations and direct exchanges with partners in the region and in the world, but, Vinh noted, the nation switched quickly to digital mode – using telephone calls and online meetings to ensure that a “lifeline” was maintained for fulfilling its roles as ASEAN Chair and a UNSC member while fostering ties with other countries.
Vietnam’s PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc chairs an online meeting of the ASEAN in November 2020. Photo by Vietnam Government Portal.
Le Dinh Tinh, head of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV), agreed that Vietnam has had a successful year in accomplishing all of its foreign affairs missions.
“Vietnam has excellently demonstrated its role as an active, dynamic and responsible member of the regional and international community,” he said.
The nation has made “practical contributions” with initiatives and proposals that have been “welcomed and supported” by countries in the region and the world.
As the 2020 Chair, Vietnam has been promoting a “cohesive and responsive” ASEAN, and the bloc has responded well to the pandemic and at the same time, ensured realization of priority tasks set for 2020 in terms of both internal and external development, as well as outlining a vision for post-Covid-19 recovery and development, he added.
At the 37th ASEAN Summit and related events in Hanoi last November, ASEAN and its partners approved as many as 80 documents, of which 28 were initiated by Vietnam.
As the bloc’s chair, Vietnam had proposed the establishment of the ASEAN Covid-19 response fund and the ASEAN medical material reserve to respond to medical emergencies, with tens of millions of dollars pledged by ASEAN members and the bloc’s partners.
As a non-permanent UNSC member, Vietnam organized an open meeting on strengthening implementation of the U.N. Charter, highlighted the issue of cooperation between the UNSC and the ASEAN, and actively participated in the U.N. peacekeeping force.
The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution drafted by Vietnam to declare December 27 as the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness.
“The resolution was passed by consensus, marking a milestone for Vietnam’s foreign affairs and diplomacy on international forums, especially at the U.N.,” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh said at a press meet.
Apart from its roles at the ASEAN and the UNSC, Vietnam managed to maintained and promote positive relationships with major powers in the world, despite the pandemic.
Tinh said: “Vietnam continued to promote its policy of independence, self-control and attaching importance to its relations with major countries. In 2020, Vietnam maintained and promoted healthy and effective cooperation with them yet at the same time, like other small and medium countries, Vietnam managed to avoid getting caught up in the growing competition between them.”
The thorny and the smooth
Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said Vietnam’s relations with the major powers in 2020 may be divided into two categories: the first comprising Vietnam’s partnerships with China and the U.S., which can be characterized as “generally cooperative but with major disputes,” such as the South China Sea and trade and economic issues with the U.S.; and the second with India, Japan and Russia, which “were generally dispute free and Vietnam sought to build on them.”
Vietnam “pursued a dual policy of continually engaging with China in areas where cooperation was possible, while resisting Chinese pressures that infringed on Vietnam’s sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction in the South China Sea.”
On March 30 last year, Vietnam sent a note to the U.N., rejecting and protesting China’s actions in sending two diplomatic notes to the U.N., laying claim to Vietnamese territories in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea.
One of the diplomatic notes was sent by China to the U.N. on March 23 of 2020 in response to the Philippines. It claimed illegally that China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters, has sovereignty and jurisdiction rights over relevant sea areas, seabeds and subsoil. It also said that it has “historic rights” in the East Sea based on “historical and legal evidences.”
The other note was sent December 12 of 2019 in response to Malaysia. It also made the illegal claim that China has sovereignty over islands in the East Sea, including the Pratas, Spratly and Paracel Islands and the Zhongsha Qundao. What China calls the Zhongsha Qundao are the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal. China also mentioned its “historical rights” in the East Sea.
A diplomatic note sent by Vietnam later said: “Vietnam protests China’s claims in the aforementioned diplomatic notes. These claims seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction rights over the East Sea.”
Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in accordance with international law, the note stressed.
Thayer noted that the bilateral relations between Vietnam and the U.S. last year were “continually bedeviled by economic issues” arising from Vietnam’s growing trade surplus with the U.S. and what several U.S. agencies – Department of Commerce, Treasury, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative – view as inequitable economic policies of the Vietnamese government such as rerouting Chinese exports and currency manipulation.”
The U.S. imposed tariffs on Vietnamese car and truck tires, and revoked Vietnam’s status as a less developing country, thus ending special preferences.
In 2020, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke directly about economic issues to the head of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation who was visiting Hanoi. Phuc also spoke to President Trump twice on the phone, telling him that Vietnam pursued a monetary policy to control inflation and maintain macro-economic stability and not to gain an advantage in international trade.
The two leaders reached agreement on instructing relevant ministries and agencies to work together to address the U.S.’s concerns.
With U.S. – China relations plunging further in 2020, Vietnam also faced a great challenge in terms of weighing and maintaining relationships with both partners.
Vietnam was consistent in resisting U.S. pressure to take sides against China, especially after Secretary Pompeo launched an international initiative to form an anti-Communist Party of China united front in mid-2020, said Thayer.
“In 2020, Vietnam endeavored to engage and cooperate with China and the U.S. to prevent the broader relationship from becoming hostage to major disputes and irritants,” he said.
Official customs data shows that in the first 10 months of 2020, despite the pandemic, two-way turnover between Vietnam and the U.S reached $73.9 billion, dropping just 4 percent against the same period of 2019. Meanwhile, China became the first country to have bilateral trade with Vietnam exceed $100 billion.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes elbows with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi, October 30, 2020 during his two-day visit to Vietnam.
What awaits in 2021
Thayer believes that dealing with the U.S. and China will continue to be a challenge for Vietnam in 2021. Vietnam will have to figure out how to manage relations with China to avoid a repetition of the cycle of confrontations over Vietnam’s oil exploration in the waters near Vanguard Bank and how to engage with the new Biden administration in addressing a range of trade and economic irritants that emerged during the Trump administration.
There are two aspects to this challenge. The first is to get the Biden administration to give some priority to Vietnam’s concerns. The second is to obtain timely practical results at the working level to remove punitive tariffs and sanctions and restore Vietnam’s status as a less developing country.
Although the world has praised Vietnam for its remarkable handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, charting an economic recovery from its impacts is a daunting task. It involves acquiring sufficient vaccines, restoring supply chains in countries affected by Covid-19, and obtaining maximum benefit from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement of Trans Pacific Partnership, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and free trade agreements with the European Union and Eurasian Economic Free Trade Union.
Experts agree in general that 2021 will continue to be a challenging year for Vietnam’s foreign affairs in the context of the pandemic developing in unpredictable and complicated ways with no end in sight.
Vietnam also needs to be alert on the need to respond to non-traditional challenges, unexpected crises, as well as increased competition among major powers.
“We are at a time when the world is changing rapidly, both in political and security governance and geo-economic governance,” said former ambassador Vinh.
He highlighted the increasing tendency among major powers to compete among themselves and the demand for “self-reliance” going hand in hand with the need to cooperate with partners for increasing trade and commerce.
Tinh of the DAV said that aside from challenges, 2021 will also bring development opportunities based on Vietnam’s achievements in 2020.
“2021 will present Vietnam with many opportunities based on previous accomplishments, including its effective Covid-19 response, economic development as well as foreign affairs achievements.”