EXCLUSIVE: Former Singapore FM - Vietnam’s neutrality a key to ASEAN Chairmanship

Update: 10:54 | 13/01/2020
TGVN. On the occasion of the “High-level Symposium on Intra-ASEAN trade and investment: Enhancing Intra-ASEAN trade and investment for a cohesive and responsive ASEAN” on January 10th, 2020 in Hanoi, The World & Vietnam Report had an exclusive interview with Mr. George Yeo, former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs on regional issues and Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020. 
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exclusive former singapore fm vietnams neutrality a key to asean chairmanship
Former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo spoke at the Symposium. (Photo: Nguyen Hong)

Vietnam is currently the Associations of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Chairmanship and Non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2020-2021. Regional and global landscapes has quickly, unexpectedly changed over the past few years. In your opinion, how would these factors affect the role of ASEAN and Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020?

One of the most important global factors that ASEAN has to consider is the US – China relation. The trade agreement between the US and China is entering a new phase and ASEAN has to respond. In addition, there are challenges at different levels. Politically, the most important challenge is the issue of South China Sea (East Sea). If ASEAN is going to sign the Code of Conduct (COC) in 2021, the work must be done this year, during Vietnam ASEAN’s Chairmanship.

Economically, in order to benefit from the situation, as Chinese, American, European companies are coming to the Southeast Asia region to access the markets, ASEAN needs a fresh, political push to for new, welcoming economic policies. However, ASEAN would need better infrastructures to maximize these benefits over the years. Therefore, ASEAN should bring in international agencies, such as the Asia Development Bank (ADB), Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), World Bank (WB)..., enhancing cooperation between international organizations, ASEAN, Vietnam and China on infrastructure developments. For example, China has excellent infrastructures and this has enabled a great portion of its citizens to join the global economy, therefore escaping poverty. In ASEAN, there are still a lot of poverty and the quickest way to solve the problem is through building infrastructures.

Moreover, there are different levels of development across ASEAN countries. ASEAN needs political leadership, especially in discussing COC. It also needs economic leadership to respond to changes in landscapes and to promote integration between ASEAN countries. At last, ASEAN needs a common social identity and I think, as the most soccer-loving country in Southeast Asia, Vietnam should consider hosting World Cup; in an ASEAN team, many players would be Vietnamese.

exclusive former singapore fm vietnams neutrality a key to asean chairmanship
Former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo during a lunch break. (Photo: Nguyen Hong)

You have been the Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs during Vietnam's 1st ASEAN Chairmanship in 2010. In your opinion, what are the similarities and differences between Vietnam’s 1st Chairmanship in 2010 and the 2nd one in 2020?

For many years, Vietnam has struggling in balancing economic growth and inflation, but at the moment, the country is in a much better, stronger position, showing its leadership through words and its impressive economic performance.

Regarding Vietnam’s international standing, part of the reason why the US invited Vietnam to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was about counterbalancing China. However, Vietnam should never let itself to be used as a counterbalance against China. Vietnam has a close relationship with China, going back many centuries and had to fight a brutal war of liberation against the US. Since then, Vietnam is independent and must continue to remain neutral, as this neutrality is crucial to its leadership in ASEAN this year. For me, I believe that Singapore and Vietnam has a strategic overlap, as we see the world in a very similar way. Therefore, at all levels, politically, economically and socially, both countries should work together to strengthen ASEAN.

How should Vietnam utilize its previous experiences and its current position to advance its agenda and regional interests? What would be your advices to Vietnam as Chairman of ASEAN?

When we are cooperating economically in ASEAN, there is always a temptation to focus on cooperation with developed countries: US, Japan, Europe and China. However, we must not forget the other member states of ASEAN behind us, especially Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. I think ASEAN must make a special effort to guarantee that these countries are brought along. Therefore, Vietnam’s effectiveness in leading ASEAN could be measured through its efforts of bringing the rest of ASEAN along the development path. The more Vietnam is able to bring the rest of ASEAN along, the more effective is Vietnam’s leadership. Vietnam’s leadership is best when it is put in the context of ASEAN.

In 2020, along with being ASEAN Chairmanship, Vietnam is a Non-permanent member of the UNSC 2020 – 2021. This will put Vietnam in a stressful position, since major global powers would try to influence Vietnam into acting to their interests. Therefore, the best position for Vietnam would be speaking as Chairman of ASEAN, as it would greatly contribute to Vietnam’s position in the UNSC. Vietnam’s leadership would be beneficial to ASEAN and in return, ASEAN would enhance Vietnam’s position on the international stage.

exclusive former singapore fm vietnams neutrality a key to asean chairmanship
Former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo believed that Vietnam and Singapore have a strategic overlap and should work together to strengthen ASEAN - Photo: Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a meeting in 2018. (Photo: VNA)

As a founding member of ASEAN, Singapore had been its Chairman four times; one was in 2007, during your term as the Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs. 2007 witnessed the beginning of the global financial crisis and “food price crisis”, yet under Singapore’s leadership, ASEAN stood tall and pressed forward. Could you share some experience on how Singapore had averted such crises, fulfilled its agenda while advanced regional interests? What could Vietnam learn from it?

During Singapore’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2007, there were the incident of demonstrators in Yangon, where the Burmese Army shot Buddhist monks; Cyclone Nargis; controversial sovereignty claims of Preah Vihear between Cambodia and Thailand; the two were coming to blow and ASEAN, all of which we had to respond. Therefore, as the Chairman of ASEAN in 2020, Vietnam will have to navigate the organization to overcome these similar kinds of problem.

The principle to solve these problems lies in getting people together. Currently, there are a lot of goodwill among ASEAN countries in all levels, from leaders, to ministries, officials and Vietnam should maximize the usage of these goodwill. Even if two countries are quarelling, as they sit down, they can become brothers and sisters; people behave. The ASEAN Consensus would also contribute to this principle, along with the ASEAN Way: If there is a controversial matter, the members would not vote and rather examine further through study groups or task forces. It is a way of giving people time to slowly understand and sympathized with each other.

Vietnam knows Southeast Asia very well but I think it is important for the country to work closely with Indonesia, since Indonesia is the biggest country in ASEAN and Indonesian leadership is important to ASEAN as a whole. Therefore, in addition to consulting closely and sharing ideas with Singapore, Vietnam should pay attentions to Indonesia.

For us, one of the hardest problems that Singapore had to solve during our Chairmanship in 2007 was the Cyclone Nargis. After the Cyclone, a lot of people were homeless and stranded; there could have been many deaths from starvation and diseases. At the time, some European countries were trying to force aids into Myanmar using warships. So the Myanmar Government, instead of concentrating on helping their own people, were sending troops in places because they thought the European were finding an excuse to invade Myanmar. At the time, Myanmar felt so beleaguered and did not want other countries to get involved.

As the Chairman, Singapore immediately held an emergency ASEAN meeting. At the meeting, the Indonesia Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda looked at his Myanmar colleague Nyan Win and said: “What do you mean to us? What do we mean to you? Are we a community or are we not?” I then asked the Myanmar Foreign Minister, who is still a good friend of mine today: “Why don’t you think about this, discuss with your capital before we meet again after lunch?” After that, he came back, agreed to use ASEAN as the bridge to connect Myanmar and the UN. General Secretary of UN Ban Ki-moon was waiting for my phone call – the moment we called him, he flew to Myanmar and international agencies followed. That is one among many times that ASEAN Community has helped averting a crisis through conversation and emotion. I would never forget those words of Mr. Wirajuda and I think it would be helpful for Vietnam to take those words in during its Chairmanship.

exclusive former singapore fm vietnams neutrality a key to asean chairmanship
During the interview with The World & Vietnam Report, Former Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo had shared some experiences about Singapore's ASEAN Chairmanship in 2007. (Photo: Nguyen Hong)

In your opinion, what is the most important value of ASEAN? What should the vision for ASEAN be in the next decade?

I think ASEAN should strive to become a neutral, welcoming platform for all major global powers, setting an example for others on how diverse countries, with different political systems, levels of development and social identities, could still cooperate, maintain overall peace and enjoy economic development. It could be said that the diversity of the world is reflected in ASEAN. In ASEAN, we have found a way to manage our differences without too much conflicts and just being succesful in doing so has made ASEAN an inspiration to others.

The best way of ASEAN is listening, respecting everyone’s views, finding common areas and working together. ASEAN Chairmanship can be considered as “soft” leadership; problems are solved through dialogues and compromises. For that, I have no doubt that Vietnam will succeed in its ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020.

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