While a range of issues will be in discussion during this weekend’s summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the South China Sea will be among them. And for Vietnam in particular, how ASEAN manages the issue will be important for its own calculations and options in dealing with the South China Sea.
ASEAN’s ability to speak in one common voice on important issues such as sovereignty and territorial issues has been under scrutiny in recent years, with the organization working on the basis of consensus and having to accommodate views of countries like Cambodia. The South China Sea issue is no exception to this. While Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has been concerning, there are worries that ASEAN will eventually settle for a code of conduct that will avoid maritime incidents. There are broader realities too: the economic dependency on China for many of the Southeast Asian countries is a reality that these countries cannot afford to ignore.
But the situation in the South China Sea will not wait for these realities to play out. Indeed, the South China Sea has been witnessing increasing tensions in the last year. Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have all been pushing back against China, albeit to varying degrees and through different pathways. In June this year, a Filipino fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese ship in Bai Co Rong (Recto Bank). Earlier, Malaysia’s oil rig operation near Luconia Shoals off the coast of the Sarawak State was stopped by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel.
But Vietnam has been particularly affected by Chinese activities in the South China Sea, and Hanoi’s pushback has correspondingly been the strongest among the ASEAN claimant states. Since July this year, China has sent one survey vessel and at least four Chinese maritime vessels into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the south of the East Sea (as Vietnam calls it). Vietnam responded with its own deployment of its Coast Guard vessels. Vietnam has called for greater support for its position but the response from all the big powers in the region and beyond has been fairly low-key. In a further assertion of its claims, China reportedly organized the seventh Sinan Cup Regatta in Duy Mong island, part of the Paracel (Hoang Sa) archipelago.
Vietnam has appeared to be pursuing multiple tracks to address the issues confronting its sovereignty. In the absence of concrete support to Vietnam from within the region and beyond, Vietnam is pursuing diplomatic tracks along with tough posturing. Last week, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the National Assembly (NA) that “What happened in the East Sea recently was getting very complicated, including serious violations in Vietnam’s sea recognized by international law… We will keep fighting in means in line with international law.” The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry also reiterated last week “that the Vanguard Bank lies completely within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, as delineated from the Vietnamese shore in accordance with the United Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982, and that the Vanguard Bank is not a disputed area or with overlapping claims.”
Vietnam has also tried the regional route to address its concerns. In late July, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh took China’s latest survey vessel deployment issue to ASEAN, saying that the “Chinese geological survey vessel group Haiyang Dizhi 8’s activities [are] violating Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the waters…” and “seriously threaten legitimate rights of coastal countries, erode trust, and worsen tensions, thus hurting peace and stability in the region.” The response, however, was one of general reiteration of the need “to uphold and comply with international laws, including the UNCLOS 1982, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC), toward perfecting an effective COC.”
Given their big focus on trade and investment, it is unlikely that the ASEAN will call out Chinese behavior that directly. And China will have no objections as long as the statements are neutral, calling on all parties to “building trust as well as ensuring peace, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and aviation in the waters.”
But for Vietnam, despite these limitations, the position ASEAN takes on issues like the South China Sea is nonetheless critical. Diplomacy continues to be among the paths Vietnam adopts to manage the South China Sea issue. And with Vietnam taking up the chairmanship of ASEAN next year, Hanoi itself will have to endeavor to find a balance between the economic and strategic interests of the ASEAN and its own disputes with China, alongside other challenges including doubts about the extent and shape of U.S. engagement under U.S. President Donald Trump.