Vietnam's Membership of ASEAN: A Constructivist Interpretation

Article excerpt

It is widely accepted in Vietnam that the government's decision to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was both timely and wise (Nguyen Phuong Binh and Luan Thuy Duong 2001, p. 192). (1) In the absence of a detailed understanding of the organization's working procedures in Hanoi, and despite ASEAN's lack of robust institutional arrangements to promote regional cooperation (Nguyen Vu Tung 2007), the Vietnamese decision to join ASEAN in the mid-1990s reflected "the political will" of Vietnam to further commit itself to the region. What then was the nature of this political will and to what extent was it guided by material and ideational considerations? Further, what aspects of membership have been most valued by Vietnam? By posing these questions, this article focuses on the ideational logic related to the question of ASEAN membership. The central argument is that in addition to fulfilling certain material considerations, ASEAN membership also helped Vietnam overcome an identity crisis engendered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moreover, this rationale still holds for Vietnamese foreign policy in the post-1995 period.

Vietnam's Decision to Join ASEAN

With the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in September 1989, and the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accords in October 1991, the normalization of relations between ASEAN and Vietnam could proceed. Detecting genuine changes in Hanoi's domestic and international priorities, ASEAN became more proactive in engaging Vietnam with a view to admitting the country into the ranks of the organization. In 1991, for example, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stated that differences in socio-political systems between Vietnam and the ASEAN states would not prevent it from joining the Association. (2) ASEAN countries thought that it was necessary to bring Vietnam into the organization in due course, for a number of reasons. First, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it seemed an appropriate time to reach out to its erstwhile opponent and end the ideological divisions engendered by the Cold War. Second, as ASEAN was eager to enlarge the organization to enable it to speak for the whole of Southeast Asia, Vietnam seemed to provide a good starting point for the subsequent entry of Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. And as a result, ASEAN would play a pivotal role in ensuring peace, stability and, to a lesser extent, prosperity in Southeast Asia and a larger role in the Asia-Pacific region. In short, Vietnam's membership of ASEAN seemed natural given the end of the Cold War and the resolution of the Cambodian problem. By July 1994, a consensus had been reached among ASEAN foreign ministers that Vietnam should be inducted into the organization as its sixth member before the organization's summit in late 1995.

For its part, Vietnam had readily expressed its desire to join ASEAN soon after the Cambodian issue had been resolved. Conscious of the fact that it might take between five and ten years for Vietnam to familiarize itself with the "ASEAN Way" of doing business, and thus effectively participate in the organization's economic and political affairs, Vietnam acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 1992. In February 1993 Hanoi announced that that it was desirous of joining ASEAN "at an appropriate time". Fourteen months later the Vietnamese Government expressed its intention to seek "early membership". Then in July 1994 Vietnam formally took the decision to join ASEAN (Nguyen Vu Tung, 2007, pp. 53-56). Vietnam officially joined the Association in July 1995.

Since the late 1990s observers of Vietnamese foreign policy have offered several explanations concerning Vietnam's motivations for joining ASEAN. One explanation is that membership of the organization was a means of implementing the overall objective of having "more friends and fewer enemies" the task laid down in the 13th Communist Party of Vietnam's (CPV) Politburo Resolution adopted in May 1988, (3) and subsequently in the country's foreign policy as "being a friend of all countries", which was adopted by the VII CPV National Congress in June 1991. …