Vietnam ‘the key to new Asean ties with Indochina’

Iseas conference on South-east Asia in the 21st century
But this is ‘not formula for regional order’

VIETNAM, anxious to shed its pariah status, remains the key to a new relationship between Asean and the Indochina states, according to an expert on South-east Asia.

Professor Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics and Political Science said yesterday: “However desirable it may be to include Laos and Cambodia in a new structure of regional relationships, the issue of a new balance between Indochina and Asean turns, above all, on the quality of ties with Vietnam.”

Speaking at a conference organised by the Institute of South-east Asian Studies (Iseas), he said Vietnam, one of the three communist powers in Asia, was the region’s “dynamic source of revolutionary political challenge and change”.

Vietnam now wanted a new relationship with Asean and its current focus on economic priorities had a direct impact on its foreign policy. The exchanges between Vietnam and Asean had increased recently, he noted, and the economic dealings were underpinned by an expanding communications network.

Laos and Cambodia, however, did not attract the same sort of attention from Asean as Vietnam did, said Prof Leifer, who teaches international relations and is pro-director of the LSE.

But Laos, which had never been regarded as an independent actor, was now displaying more autonomy, and with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Hanoi could not afford to be its patron.

As for Cambodia, the political situation remained fragile and uncertain. Phnom Penh’s cultural differences and historical experience would shape an uncertain future relationship with Vietnam, he said.

“Indochina is now a category of convenience rather than a set of special relationships subject to Vietnamese dominance . . . The concept of Indochina as some kind of unitary actor needs to be revised.”

But from Asean’s perspective, a “desirable new balance of advantage” was in place already, he added, noting that Vietnam and Laos were “supplicant” states in their relations with Asean.

Vietnam and Laos had now committed themselves to market-based economic reform through closer ties with the region.

Membership of the Indo-Chinese countries in Asean would expand the network for consultations, he said, adding that this could be used to deal with territorial disputes.

But, he warned that an expanded membership and the new balance between Asean and Indochina was not a formula for regional order.

“The problems of South-east Asia, despite a growing regional coherence, cannot be fully addressed if extracted from a wider East Asian regional domain, whose strategic context has changed, generating in the process, uncertainty and apprehension.”

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