By: Huong Le Thu, ASPI

The accession of Vietnam, a formerly antagonistic communist neighbour, to ASEAN was the result of several major geostrategic power shifts that continue to impact on the grouping’s development today.

Conflict in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s provided the context for the genesis of ASEAN. Despite the hard feelings original member states held towards each other during the period of decolonisation and Cold War tension, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines agreed to work together to shield themselves from the domino effect of communist expansion. ASEAN’s diplomatic response to Vietnam’s 1978 intervention in Cambodia remains the organisation’s biggest success.

The threat of communism brought together a group of dissimilar interests and provided a reason for ASEAN to unite. When it subsided in the 1990s, Vietnam’s regional integration became a necessity and the former adversary acceded to ASEAN in 1995. This marked one of the most meaningful transitions in the region’s history — Southeast Asia had embraced its political and ideological diversity and overcome Cold War bipolarity.

ASEAN was a critical platform for Vietnam to break out from its diplomatic isolation, re-engage with its neighbourhood and indirectly move towards normalising its relationship with the United States. Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN entailed an adjustment in the original members’ strategic thinking and additional considerations of ASEAN’s economic goals. Post-war Vietnam was significantly less developed than the ‘ASEAN 6’. It was grouped into the ‘second tier ASEAN’ group alongside newcomers Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar for which separate arrangements were made in regards to economic integration.

Vietnam’s successful transformation from an external threat into a fellow member state can be seen as the best example of a member state adopting ASEAN principles. Vietnam is now one of the most active members of the organisation. Under the pressure generated by rivalry between the United States and China, Hanoi has been consistent in insisting that ASEAN play a role in dispute management.

Vietnam has also vocally supported multilateral ASEAN initiatives, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, to uphold the rules-based order and stability of the region. The continuity of Vietnam’s domestic leadership, alongside Singapore, means that its ruling elites still maintain the original vision held by the founders of ASEAN. Unlike Southeast Asian democracies such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand (which have experienced power transitions that somewhat undermined their commitment to ASEAN), Vietnam’s outlook on the strategic importance of the group has remained consistent.

Vietnam’s accession has been a mutually beneficial process: ASEAN was the bridge to Vietnam’s liberalisation and connection with the world when the United States was still isolating it from global opportunities. Likewise, the inclusion of Indochinese states reinvented ASEAN into a regional grouping that included maritime and mainland Southeast Asia.

For half a century the region has shaped ASEAN as an institution while ASEAN has framed the conduct of regional politics. After decades of expansion, however, ASEAN is struggling to adjust to new shifts in power, particularly the rise of China. The organisation also suffers from a need to reform itself internally.

Increasing influence by China on individual member states has led to the abuse of ASEAN norms, including the principle of consensus. Growing frustration about this ineffective practice has led to internal discussion about the possibility of a new ‘ASEAN–X’ approach, where issues are resolved among those that are willing or are directly concerned with the problem at hand. While this idea is still in the making, it signals that the innate diversity and different priorities within ASEAN make it increasingly hard to reach ‘consensus’. The pending membership application of Timor Leste, if successful, will only lead ASEAN towards even deeper heterogeneity.

Timor Leste’s pending membership may only further strain ASEAN unity. But it does offer a useful case-study for those who also contemplate joining. This takes the edge off one of the oldest arguments against Australia’s joining ASEAN: that it differs too much from the group. While Australia’s difference is indisputable, that is not the main show-stopper.

The main obstacle to Australian membership is not related to how unified ASEAN is but rather the lack of ASEAN leadership. Before the membership debate, Canberra should ask if it has a vision of the leadership it can offer to ASEAN and what sort of leadership it is willing to follow.

The strategic considerations for Australia to join ASEAN differ from those that were imperative for Vietnam or the Indochinese members in the post-Cold War context. Joining ASEAN is optional for Canberra, and the rationale for Australia to consider joining the club is to better position itself in a region with a stronger China. But whether belonging to the ASEAN group can shield Australia from a more omnipresent China is an open question.

Even so, this debate is an opportunity for Australia to lever existing ASEAN platforms such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum to assert its status as the oldest and closest ASEAN dialogue partner. Unlike other key major dialogue partners whose current political contexts have shifted their immediate focus away from ASEAN (such as the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan and the EU), Australia is in the position to demonstrate support for this regional institution.

Vietnam’s ASEAN success story should give Australia a reference point that ASEAN is able to adjust geopolitical needs. ASEAN membership does not necessarily give more leverage. It is a question of what Canberra wants from ASEAN and whether it has really made most of the existing frameworks of dialogue and strategic partnership.

Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at Australia Strategic Policy Institute.

This article first appeared on the East Asia Forum.