Vietnam wants ASEAN to look beyond consensus in decision making

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang suggested Tuesday that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adjust its long-held practice of applying the principle of consensus in the 10-member bloc’s decision making so as to be able to deal better with contentious regional issues.

Quang, who made the remarks at a lecture during his visit to Singapore, said ASEAN should consider “supplementing” its consensus-based principle with other aspects so as to ensure flexibility in tackling issues that require decision-making.

While he did not elaborate on possible alternatives, diplomats said that he was probably referring to a majority vote and that the move comes amid the backdrop of ASEAN’s difficulty in making group decisions and issuing joint statements in recent years on contentious issues such as the South China Sea territorial dispute that has fiercely split members.

“ASEAN is an organization that plays a critically important role in the settlement of regional issues,” he said through a Vietnamese-English interpreter at a lecture organized by a Singapore state-run think tank, the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

“We all know that the principle of consensus is clearly enshrined in the charter of ASEAN. And this principle has been and will continue to uphold its role in the building of a strong and prosperous ASEAN community,” he said.

“Nevertheless in addition to the principle of consensus, regarding the newly emerging issues in order to ensure flexibility and effectiveness of handling of issues within the ASEAN community, we believe that it is possible for countries of ASEAN to consider and supplement a number of other principles as a supplementary to the principle of consensus in ASEAN,” he added.

Quang was responding to a postlecture question from a Vietnamese academic based at the think tank who sought his view on ASEAN’s role in light of “some negative developments that seem to have undermined ASEAN’s centrality in regional affairs.”

In recent years, some ASEAN countries with relatively close relations with China have tried to block ASEAN from issuing any joint statement which contains phrases that sound critical of China, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of other ASEAN members who are now increasingly finding themselves hindered by the group’s principle of consensus, which requires the agreement of all 10 member countries.

This was also the case at a foreign ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia’s biggest annual security meeting, in late July where the chairman’s statement stopped short of including any mention of an international tribunal ruling earlier that month that invalidated China’s vast claims in the South China Sea.

On the issue of the South China Sea dispute, in which Vietnam is a claimant state, Quang said recent related developments “have had negative impacts on the security environment of the region, especially maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight, threatening to erode trust and affecting the cooperation process of the region.”

He said Vietnam seeks to settle disputes by peaceful means and through political, diplomatic and legal processes on the basis of international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.