Why the new Vietnamese–Indonesian strategic partnership will strengthen ASEAN

Author: Hoang Anh Tuan, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

During Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Jakarta in June 2013, Vietnam and Indonesia agreed to establish a strategic partnership, a category that both countries reserve for their most important foreign relationships.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang (left) holds a joint speech with his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta, 27 June 2013. (Photo: AAP)

To date, Vietnam is Indonesia’s only strategic partner in the region, and Indonesia and Thailand are Vietnam’s only two Southeast Asian strategic partners. The agreement demonstrates that both states have a renewed interest in one another, and underscores dramatic shifts in each country’s perspective regarding the fast-changing regional strategic and security environment.

The strategic partnership builds on the comprehensive partnership agreement signed in 2003, which pledged to promote practical cooperation to tackle regional and global challenges concerning both countries. The new partnership is expected to strengthen bilateral relations in all areas, including marine and fishery cooperation and water, food, and energy security. Both sides have also set the target of raising the volume of bilateral trade to US$5 billion by 2015 and to US$10 billion by 2018. And with respect to security matters, the agreement will create more opportunities for both countries to regularly and substantively exchange views on regional security issues, including views on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the creation of a regional Code of Conduct in the maritime domain.

But the new strategic partnership also has a positive resonance for the region. Within ASEAN, Vietnam and Indonesia are the most populated mainland and oceanic countries in Southeast Asia respectively. Both are important regional players, and the new partnership will only reinforce their commitment to being good regional citizens, and effective participants and leaders of ASEAN. This is particularly because they share a growing number of regional interests, such as increasing economic interdependence through trade and investment, and improving agricultural and educational cooperation among ASEAN members. Vietnam and Indonesia are also both emerging powers with the capacity to influence larger global relationships. This is reflected in their shared commitment to implementing proactive foreign policy agendas within regional frameworks such as APEC, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting Plus, which enhances ASEAN’s international prestige and its essential role within these frameworks.

In the security realm, the Vietnamese–Indonesian strategic partnership builds on both countries’ history of working within the ASEAN framework to enhance regional security and cooperation. Immediately after the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012, Indonesia was the primary driver behind the ASEANS’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea. As ASEAN’s Chairman in 2010, Vietnam also put forth numerous security proposals such as the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting Plus. Both countries recognise that ASEAN’s engagement in regional security will be all the more important in the face of new challenges such as America’s pivot toward the region, China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea dispute, Tokyo’s increased defence budgets, and calls within Japan to remove the post-war constitutional restrictions on its military and maritime capabilities.

Ultimately, both Vietnam and Indonesia consider their strategic partnership to be a pilot project. The success of their strategic partnership could catalyse a spillover effect, which would help to create more bilateral strategic partnerships between ASEAN members. This would in turn create a web of tightly interwoven national interests, which will ultimately make ASEAN stronger and more durable, even after the ASEAN Community has been formed. In fact, the Vietnamese–Indonesian agreement may even encourage countries in the region to establish an interlocking network of strategic partnerships that will pay positive dividends for the region. That, after all, is what the ASEAN Community is all about.

Hoang Anh Tuan is Director-General of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and Co-founder of the Southeast Asia Roundtable, Washington DC. The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Vietnamese Government or the Southeast Asia Roundtable. He can be reached at tuanmai60@yahoo.com.