By Huong Le Thu —
Vietnam’s new president Tran Dai Quang made one of his first international trips to Singapore August 28-30. During his visit, Quang reiterated Vietnam’s emphasis on the rule of law in safeguarding peace, concerns about the disputes in the South China Sea, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common challenges. While Singapore-Vietnam relations face little controversy, the two countries seem to be strengthening their bonds because of a shared realization that regional peace and cooperation cannot be taken for granted.
In the wake of recent geopolitical turbulence in the region, particularly fall-out from July’s arbitral tribunal ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea dispute, pressing questions have emerged about the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in regional security matters. Developments have shown that ASEAN is in disarray, and member countries are facing an impasse in achieving common positions, as was demonstrated at the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane in July. Vietnam and Singapore share frustration about the current state of ASEAN and feel compelled to advocate steps to ensure ASEAN’s survival as a relevant regional organization. In response the two countries have tightened bilateral cooperation.
Some members of ASEAN, like Cambodia, have sabotaged the organization’s unity by vetoing any ASEAN statements regarding the South China Sea and abusing the weakness of the grouping’s consensus system. Laos, this year’s ASEAN chair, is believed to be following a similar path of client-patron relations with China. Brunei, after allegedly joining the four-point consensus with China earlier this year is now increasingly suspected of falling under Beijing’s charm at the expense of ASEAN unity.
Political transitions and turmoil in a number of Southeast Asian states has created an inward-looking tendency in several countries. The current leadership in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and even Myanmar, have limited interest in the concept of ASEAN “centrality.” The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte shows signs of wanting to deal with maritime disputes with China bilaterally rather than multilaterally with ASEAN.
That leaves Singapore and Vietnam feeling somewhat alone when thinking about regional security and strategic matters. That “loneliness” is generated by a stronger sense of vulnerability and threat perception in Vietnam and Singapore than in other Southeast Asian nations. Vietnam and Singapore share a conviction about the necessity of trying to figure out how to cope in a rather “tough neighbourhood.” This is the primary driver for strategic thinking by the two countries’ policymakers that distinguishes them from the other Southeast Asian countries.
There are other similarities between Vietnam and Singapore that determine their attachment to regional institutions: both are smaller powers, but with stable regimes and pronounced strategic thinking. In Vietnam, and even more so in Singapore, continuity in domestic politics has resulted in a sense of importance attached to ASEAN by its founding fathers. This “institutional memory” is being disrupted in Southeast Asian democracies that have experienced generational changes in their leadership.
Both Vietnam and Singapore are displeased with China’s active attempts to undermine ASEAN’s multilateralism. While Vietnam’s hedging efforts have changed significantly in recent years, both Hanoi and Singapore follow the principle of maintaining a balanced approach to China-U.S. great power competition.
For Vietnam, the stake is higher and the room for maneuver smaller due to its conflicting maritime claims with China. Yet, looking beyond these differences, it is critical for both Singapore and Hanoi that ASEAN stay relevant. For Vietnam, this is precisely because of the South China Sea disputes. For Singapore, it is also because of its current role as the coordinator for ASEAN-China relations.
A similar outlook on regional affairs reinforces the incentives for the bilateral cooperation between Singapore and Hanoi. Singapore is now Vietnam’s third largest investor. The Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park, a bilateral cooperation project launched in 1996, has been a successfully expanded to seven provinces. Last year, Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia set up an office in Hanoi.
When Vietnam first received foreign warships in Cam Ranh Bay, it decided to give Singapore first access, despite wooing by bigger countries such as the United States, Japan, and India. Already having strong economic and people-to-people relations (Singapore is Vietnam’s favorite destination for tourism, shopping, education, and medical services), the strategic environment has led to deeper defence cooperation. In 2013, the two signed a strategic partnership opening pathways for more diverse exchanges. The defence forces of two countries now host regular defense dialogues and even armed forces joint medical missions.
In the current uncertain environment, the two countries share a growing sense of urgency as well as responsibility for the region’s unity and security. Vietnam and Singapore realize the need for balancing power and maximizing the sovereign rights and independence of small countries. And both feel strongly about ensuring equal say for every state, regardless of its size.
While Vietnam has direct interests in the South China Sea dispute, Singapore has economic interests in the stability of the maritime domain and freedom of navigation that guarantees “business as usual.” The Vietnamese president’s visit to Singapore signals the importance for smaller Southeast Asian countries that in addition to enhanced rapprochement with great powers, there is a parallel need to invest in relations with smaller neighbors. Quang’s visit to Singapore, followed by a stop in Brunei, just ahead of the ASEAN Summit in Laos suggests that intra-ASEAN diplomacy is a top priority on Vietnam’s foreign policy agenda.
Dr. Huong Le Thu is a political scientist based at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore where she focuses on the nexus of domestic politics and foreign policy in Vietnam, China’s strategy toward Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia’s response to the Sino-U.S. rivalry. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.