Written by Ramses Amer.

In 2015 Vietnam celebrates two major anniversaries. First, it is 40 years since war ended in Vietnam with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, which paved the way for the formal reunification of Vietnam the following year. Second, it is 20 years since Vietnam gained membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 28 July 1995.

 Vietnam’s relations with ASEAN and its five founding member states – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – have seen major transformation over the past 40 years in particular during the period 1975-1995. In the context of the current situation with Vietnam fully integrated into the ASEAN framework for regional co-operation and with a Vietnamese as Secretary General of ASEAN it seems a long time ago when the relationship between Vietnam and ASEAN was characterised by animosity and deep differences.

The relationship 1975-1995

During the period of 1975-1995 Vietnam’s attitude towards ASEAN was inconsistent, with a lingering Vietnamese perception of the Association as being anti-Vietnamese. When Vietnam attempted to diversify its overall foreign relations out of the limited orbit of socialist countries in 1976 and 1977, efforts were made to improve and expand contacts with the ASEAN member states. However, Vietnam also continued to criticise the ASEAN countries, one accusation being that the Association was too closely linked to the USA. Vietnam’s policy of engagement was reinforced in 1978 as Vietnam sought to gather regional diplomatic support in its deepening conflict with Cambodia.

This process of rapprochement with the ASEAN member states came to an abrupt halt as a result of Vietnam’s military intervention in Cambodia in late December 1978. The Cambodian conflict 1979-1991 became the dominant issue in Vietnam-ASEAN relations. This led to a confrontation between Vietnam and ASEAN which centred on the situation in Cambodia, with ASEAN actively opposing Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia both regionally and internationally. The second half of the 1980s saw a gradual improvement of relations between Vietnam and individual ASEAN member states. However, full normalisation of relations between Vietnam and ASEAN was only achieved following the formal settlement of the Cambodian conflict in October 1991.

With the Cambodian conflict removed from the agenda, relations between Vietnam and ASEAN were allowed to flourish. This can be seen from Vietnam’s gradual integration into the existing regional framework in Southeast Asia. Vietnam acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 1992. It became a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which held its first official meeting in 1994. Vietnam was admitted as a full member of ASEAN on 28 July 1995. This displayed a remarkable shift in relations between Vietnam and ASEAN during a period of 20 years.

Missed opportunity?

Was there a missed opportunity back in the 1970s? Was the potential of rapprochement fully explored during the period 1975 to 1978? Once the Cambodian conflict came to dominate the relationship from early 1979 further rapprochement was not possible, but could more have been achieved before the emergence of the Cambodian conflict? In order to assess this issue it is necessary to take into account the specific conditions that prevailed and it is not correct to judge the developments through the lenses of the situation that prevailed in the 1990s or today.

First, the importance of ideology in inter-state relations was of high relevance in the 1970s, but of much less relevance after the end of the Cold War. Thus, this ideological factor was detrimental to an enhanced rapprochement between Vietnam and ASEAN in the period 1975-1978. Second, the legacy of the Vietnam War and the perception of ASEAN as being too closely linked to the USA did negatively affect its relations with ASEAN in the 1970s, but it was of less or no relevance in the 1990s. Third, the international status of ASEAN was much less developed and prominent in the 1970s as compared to the early 1990s when ASEAN had emerged as an important actor through its influential role in the international diplomacy of the Cambodian conflict. Fourth, in the 1970s member-states of ASEAN had yet to emerge as fast growing economies, while in the 1990s several of them went through a process of fast economic growth and development.

Thus, as seen from Vietnam’s perspective ASEAN and its individual member-states were not perceived to be able to assist Vietnam in its economic development in the 1970s. Evidently, Vietnam’s perception of ASEAN had changed by the early 1990s and consequently seeking closer ties and eventually membership became foreign policy priorities for Vietnam. Thus, the rapprochement during the period 1975-1978 went as far as it was possible in the context that prevailed during that period.

Main achievement at 20 years of membership

It is in the field of conflict management that the main achievement of Vietnam’s regional integration can be seen. Vietnam has made considerable progress in such efforts since it became a member of the Association in 1995. The progress has certainly been facilitated by Vietnam’s membership because overall relations have been further strengthened with its fellow ASEAN members. Improved relations may also help explain why the disputes have become more manageableas well aswhy a number of them have been resolved either through joint development schemes or through formal delimitation agreements. Thus, it can be argued that the active and committed policy of peaceful management of border disputes implemented by the Vietnamese government is paying dividends. The progress achieved indicates that several of Vietnam’s neighbours are pursuing similar policies.

The progress made in managing its border and maritime issues between Vietnam and other member-states of ASEAN demonstrate that the TAC principle of peaceful management of disputes is being implemented in Vietnam’s relations and its ASEAN neighbours. This is another indication of Vietnam’s commitment to and continued integration into the regional framework of collaboration and integration in Southeast Asia.

This overall positive trend in the management of Vietnam’s border disputes contributes to the ASEAN goal to promote peace and security in Southeast Asia. It is also positively contributing to improving inter-state relations between the member-states of ASEAN. It can even be argued that the positive developments relating to the management of Vietnam’s border disputes have contributed to increase the credibility of ASEAN’s approach to conflict management as well as to strengthen it.

Ramses Amer is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden and previously a Senior Research Fellow at Stockholm University. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr