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  • The Evolving Regional Order in East Asia:A View from Vietnam
  • Tran Viet Thai (bio)

In recent years, East Asia has witnessed profound and daunting changes that have significantly transformed the regional order and created the highest level of uncertainty in the strategic environment since the end of the Cold War. In the current environment, both regional institutions and norms are being challenged. China has proposed or launched many initiatives that will have a significant impact on the regional order in East Asia, including the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is slated to fund various infrastructure projects across the region. The United States under President Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and appears to be ready to re-examine some of the long-standing core pillars of U.S. foreign policy. Japan is proactively adjusting its foreign and defense policies, including laying out five new principles for diplomacy and expanding their application to its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Russia has become more active in regional affairs, pursuing a closer relationship with China and paying more attention to ASEAN. Finally, India is quickly shifting from a Look East to an Act East policy.

Given all these competing ideas and proposals, East Asia is experiencing its most difficult period since the end of the Cold War. All countries, within and outside the region, have been forced to rethink and recalculate their policy choices, amplifying the desire to form a new regional order to effectively manage these rapid and complex changes. This essay will briefly analyze the evolving nature of the regional order in East Asia from Vietnam's perspective and examine what role Vietnam could play in such a fast-changing environment.

The Regional Strategic Environment for Vietnam

Since the end of the Cold War, Vietnam has been quite successful in its reforms and opening up. This success partly comes from the fact that the country has enjoyed a relatively stable and peaceful regional environment. This strategic environment has exhibited several key features over the past [End Page 64] three decades. First, freed from the ideological competition between the former Soviet Union and the United States, Vietnam no longer must take sides with any major power but is able to choose its own policy options. It normalized relations with China in 1991 and with the United States in 1995, and in 1995 it signed a framework agreement for cooperation with the European Union. Second, at the regional level, Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995 and was successfully integrated into its cooperative mechanisms. Third, domestically, Vietnam's decision to reform its economy and embrace market-oriented principles has made it an integral and dynamic part of the regional economy. Favorable conditions in the region allow Vietnam to spend its limited resources on achieving its national development goals.

However, in recent years the rapidly changing regional strategic environment has presented Vietnam with many challenges. The first and greatest challenge is balancing between major powers, especially between a rising and revisionist China and the United States, which wants to maintain the status quo. The second challenge is managing regional security issues in the short and medium term so that they do not negatively affect the peaceful and favorable environment that Vietnam is enjoying. In recent years, hot spots in the Asia-Pacific such as the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Korean Peninsula have risen in temperature. Therefore, Vietnam faces the risk of having to divert resources from national development to other areas. The third challenge is dealing with nontraditional issues such as climate change and cybersecurity in an interconnected and globalized context. Finally, maintaining momentum for further domestic reforms will be a priority for Vietnam in the coming years.

Fundamental Changes in the Regional Order

Vietnam holds the view that peace and prosperity, which many countries in East Asia have enjoyed until recently, stem mostly from the current regional order, which was established and has been maintained by the United States over the last seven decades. Four key elements have sustained this regional order for such a long time: (1) the relatively stable balance of power and the dynamic relationships between...


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