6 June 2024

This writer vividly remember the last quarter of 1994, when former Vietnamese foreign minister Vu Khoan and his team visited the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat. He was on an important mission, to determine whether Vietnam should join ASEAN as the seventh member in July 1995, before his country made that historical decision.

Vu Khoan, who died on June 21st at the age of 85, did not mince words during the one-and-a-half-hour meeting with the ASEAN Secretariat’s senior officials. It was like question time in a National Assembly. As a special assistant to the Secretary General of ASEAN, this writer had to take notes on some of his questions and views. Among his first questions were “What are the benefits of being a member of ASEAN?” He was very inquisitive about the rules and regulations in ASEAN. “How many agreements and protocols, with which Vietnam will have to accede and comply, are there before admission?” They were fair questions. The ASEAN Economic Community had already taken shape and Vietnam was worried that it would have to make many adjustments and change from a centralised economic system to more market-oriented approach.

His questions also focused on the bloc’s external relations, as Vietnam was promoting its regional and international profile after the Indochina War. He wondered what the attitude of ASEAN would be towards the US and China after the country’s admission. At the time, US-China relations were good, not as acrimonious as they are today. Towards the end of the session, he also submitted a series of questions for the Secretariat staff to answer later.

In the ASEAN community, Vu Khoan, a native of Hanoi, was well-known among his colleagues as a soft-spoken but tough negotiator. He spoke fluent English, had a quick mind and would respond accordingly. After Vietnam joined ASEAN, he would, without fail, engage with other senior officials on all matters pertaining to ASEAN cooperation that related to Vietnam and its obligations. 

Lest we forget, it was unprecedented for ASEAN to admit Vietnam, which had a different economic system. There was fear that Vietnam could be a drag on regional economic integration. Truth be told, after 28 years, Vietnam has shown that it has been able to integrate economically with ASEAN. Indeed, it has now become a leading ASEAN member in multiple areas. The country is also a force to be reckoned with internationally.

At one of the many senior official meetings in Brunei Darussalam, which occupied the ASEAN chair in 1995, Vu Khoan was the person who helped other ASEAN colleagues to agree on the acronym for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). 

During the two-day discussion, ASEAN officials could not agree on the AEM acronym, as this duplicated that of the ASEAN Economic Meeting. Towards the end, Vu Khoan suggested that the acronym of the Asia-Europe Meeting be “ASEM”. “That would solve the problem,” he reiterated, pointing out that, in Vietnam, quite often acronyms would use two first letters of names or titles. There was a pause and then the chair of the senior official meeting asked whether there were any objections. Another silence. The chair then announced that there were no objections. It was a memorable moment in the annals of ASEAN evolution. 

He held the position of deputy foreign minister from 1990-1998 and was later appointed as first Deputy Minister in charge of relations with ASEAN, ASEM, APEC, Asia Pacific region, among others. He also served as Minister of Trade in January 2000. Two years later, he was promoted to the rank of deputy prime minister in charge of international economic relations. He retired in 2007 for health reasons.

Vu Khoan’s experience in strengthening ties and cooperation with ASEAN has been passed to his son, Vu Ho, who currently holds the position of Director General of ASEAN at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn