A half-day meeting in Vietnam on Wednesday could mark the beginning of a new confidence-building process in the South China Sea. The meeting, held in Vietnam’s oil city Vung Tau, involved delegates and observers from all the claimants including China, Taiwan, and little-heard Brunei.
Although the meeting was held behind closed doors, the agenda was made public. Delegates discussed practical steps toward implementing initiatives agreed to over a decade ago in the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” between China and the countries of the Association of Southeast Nations. Time was spent on freedom of navigation, environmental protection, joint development, and maritime connectivity. Perhaps most interestingly, the final session discussed “institutional arrangements for consultation/negotiation and implementation of cooperative activities.”
The event was organized by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam – the foreign ministry’s think tank – on the sidelines of its annual South China Sea conference. Participants included government officials from Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, as well as locally-based diplomats from Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia. There were no Chinese or Philippine governmental delegates but several senior academics with direct connections to ministries in both countries did take part.
As might be expected, Vietnam was well represented. Senior officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, fisheries, and defense took part along with officers from the navy and coastguard. The strong delegation suggests Vietnam is making a serious effort to create and institutionalize a process of practical confidence-building in the South China Sea. The question is whether the other claimants want to do the same.
Outside the meeting rooms, Vietnam and the Philippines are already engaged in practical cooperation. The sporting competitions between their island garrisons that took place this year and last are just the most visible symbol of tightening links, which have also included a Vietnamese naval visit to Manila and the signing of a strategic partnership between the two countries.
Less celebrated but more significant is the slow rebuilding of ties between Hanoi and Beijing following China’s disastrous deployment of the oil rig HS981 off the Paracel Islands last year. That created a six month-long diplomatic crisis – from the deployment of the rig in May until normal bilateral meetings between the two sides resumed in October.
In the 24 years since they resumed diplomatic ties, Vietnam and China have institutionalized their lop-sided relationship through both government-to-government arrangements and others between the two communist parties. Brantly Womack of the University of Virginia has described twin techniques of what he calls “neutralizing disputes and ritualizing relations.” Difficult issues are dealt with in particular channels, allowing other parts of the relationship to continue with less hindrance. Vietnamese officials show due deference and China responds with respect for Vietnam’s autonomy.
It’s not clear whether China would be willing to take part in any confidence-building process of the kind discussed in Vung Tau. It may be that it’s too ‘multilateral,’ given that Beijing prefers dealing with the other claimants one-to-one. China might also consider that it gives too much representation to Taiwan.
And then there’s the question of whether the other Southeast Asian claimants — Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia (whose Exclusive Economic Zone overlaps with China’s ‘U-shaped line’ claim) — are prepared to put in the necessary effort and resources to make a practical process viable. China’s island-building activities over the past two years have prodded officials in Brunei, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta into a new state of alertness. Sustaining cooperation has been difficult in the past and it’s not immediately apparent that this time will be any different.
But perhaps what this meeting shows is that small groups of countries working together might be able to advance practical cooperation much more easily than attempting to corral the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into collective action. Although all the countries of the region profess to abide by “ASEAN centrality,” recent difficulties in forming consensus within the organization suggest the future lies in what Europeans have called “variable geometry.”
Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House. His new report on “Vietnam and the United States: An Emerging Security Partnership” is being published by the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, available here.