Vietnam – an emerging regional leader?

By Dr Pia Dannhauer

In April 2024, Vietnam convened the first-ever ASEAN Future Forum (AFF). The forum was intended to shape conversations about future challenges surrounding sustainable development and a people-centred region by bringing together diverse stakeholders from government to business. The AFF demonstrated strong intellectual leadership from Vietnam as ASEAN is developing its post-2025 community vision and struggles to maintain its relevance amid a complex strategic environment.

This is not the first time Vietnam has assumed a more prominent role in promoting ASEAN cohesion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanoi expended significant diplomatic capital on promoting close regional cooperation, for example by establishing a working group on public health emergencies. Indeed, the motto of its 2020 chairmanship was “cohesive and responsive” ASEAN: cohesive to strengthen ASEAN unity and internal strength, responsive to ensure ASEAN ability to respond to global challenges.

These efforts warrant the question – is Vietnam emerging as a leader in ASEAN?

Vietnam’s place in ASEAN

When Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995, the country was in the early stages of implementing market-oriented reforms, seeking to expand its external relations beyond the former Communist bloc and entering global markets. Membership in ASEAN was crucial to help Vietnam diversify its partnerships and build up its economy.

Today, however, Vietnam is one of the most trade-intensive economies in the world and emerging as a manufacturing powerhouse. It is also a key strategic partner for many Indo-Pacific countries. Despite maintaining close ties with its historical partner China, Vietnam has in recent years entered strategic partnerships with a host of countries from the US to Japan and Australia.

In line with its growing global importance, the country has graduated from a primary beneficiary of regional integration to a proactive collaborator in ASEAN. Hanoi’s initiatives primarily focus on promoting regional security in line with its own interest in a stable and prosperous region. The country has, for example, played a key role in initiating and making annual the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) – a platform that brings together the ASEAN states with eight other countries.

Hanoi is also a vocal advocate for a strong ASEAN role in the South China Sea conflict with China. Vietnam is itself a claimant in the territorial dispute, and ASEAN serves as an important platform for Vietnam to collaborate with others to counter Chinese claims while avoiding direct conflict with its giant neighbour.

Limits to leadership

Nonetheless, there are constraints on Vietnam’s ability to play a leading regional role.

Principal among them is domestic turmoil amid the ‘blazing furnace’ anticorruption campaign. Between 2021 and 2023, 60,000 public servants resigned. There has been unprecedented turn-over among Vietnam’s top leadership. Since December 2022, 6 out of the total 18 politburo members resigned. These resignations are a result of the campaign but also symptom of infighting with Vietnam’s Communist Party. Fault lines within the political elite are likely to cause some uncertainty, perhaps even an inward-turn, in foreign policy. They also undermine Vietnam’s ability to present unity, particularly in the face of Chinese assertiveness – at least until the 2026 Communist Party congress, when the new leadership will be chosen.

Furthermore, China’s growing influence in the region constrains Vietnam’s ability to foster regional unity. This is notable in the South China Sea dispute where ASEAN members are divided on how to respond to an increasingly aggressive China. Given ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making, different geopolitical alignments have prevented the grouping from effectively responding to strategic challenges in the region. Intra-regional divisions are compounded by tensions between Vietnam and its Mekong neighbours. Cambodia and Laos have historically been close to Vietnam but growing Chinese clout threatens to diminish Hanoi’s influence. Most recently, the Funan Techo Canal, a US$ 1.7 billion project funded by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has caused significant tensions between Vietnam and Cambodia over environmental and security concerns.

Looking ahead

Political turn-over and the impacts of China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia constrain Vietnam’s ability to assume a more prominent role in ASEAN. Nonetheless, ASEAN remains a key vehicle for Vietnam to promote stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. As such, Hanoi will maintain its proactive engagement, advocating for initiatives and projects where it sees an opportunity to promote ASEAN cohesion and relevance. Indeed, new initiatives such as a regular international defence exhibition and greater collaboration with the World Economic Forum in the region are already in the making.

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