“Vietnam, ASEAN and the ‘Consensus Dilemma’” a commentary by Le Hong Hiep

Commentary 2016/52, 31 August 2016

During the 38th Singapore Lecture, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang highlighted ASEAN’s importance in shaping regional responses to traditional as well as non-traditional security threats, claiming that it is critical to maintain a “multi-polar, multi-layered regional architecture in which ASEAN plays a central role”.

It is noteworthy that while praising ASEAN’s role in managing regional security issues, including the South China Sea disputes, Mr Quang also hinted at Vietnam’s frustration over ASEAN’s inability to effectively address the disputes due to the Association’s consensus principle.

Answering a question from the floor regarding Vietnam’s perspective on ASEAN’s role in regional affairs, Mr. Quang recognised “consensus” as a fundamental principle of ASEAN’s modus operandi, but also postulated that given the “newly emerging issues”, it would be useful for ASEAN to establish supplementary mechanisms to allow some degree of flexibility to better manage these challenges.

Among the “newly emerging issues” referenced by Mr. Quang is the recent difficulties caused by ASEAN’s consensus principle in formulating common position on regional security issues, especially on the South China Sea disputes.

Since its accession to ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam has been keen to use ASEAN mechanisms to manage its South China Sea disputes with other claimant states, especially China. ASEAN’s consensus principle, however, poses a dilemma for Vietnam in pursuing this strategy. While the principle enables Vietnam to effectively veto ASEAN policies and actions that may be detrimental to its domestic interests, it also constrains Vietnam’s efforts to forge a common position among the ASEAN member states on the South China Sea disputes.

Therefore, Mr. Quang’s suggestion for ASEAN to come up with additional mechanisms to circumvent difficulties presented by ASEAN’s consensus principle reflects the centrality of the South China Sea disputes in Vietnam’s foreign policy agenda, one that tends to trump the perceived benefits that the principle may bring Hanoi in other issues.

Mr. Quang’s suggestion may be worth considering if ASEAN wants to enhance its effectiveness in addressing burning issues that have major implications for regional security. It also echoes proposals by some scholars who have argued that ASEAN should reassess its “one voice” decision making by removing the power to veto by any one member state, and adopting an “ASEAN minus X” principle instead of full consensus in addressing certain relevant issues.

In order for the proposal to be adopted by the member states, they must first reach a consensus on the need for such a fundamental change to the Association’s modus operandi. Given ASEAN’s recent track record, the prospect for ASEAN member states to reach such a “consensus against consensus”, or at least to agree on additional mechanisms to supplement the consensus principle as Mr Quang suggested, may be low.

In the meantime, Vietnam and some like-minded ASEAN partners may want to work together to come up with ad hoc mechanisms to address urgent security issues, especially the South China Sea disputes. While such an approach may somehow undermine ASEAN centrality and solidarity, it may be a trade-off ASEAN member states have to accept if they decide to stick with the consensus principle.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep  is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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