ASEAN and the South China Sea: Need for Vietnam’s leadership in the current scenario


The Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) was established with the objective ‘to maintain and enhance peace, security and stability in the region’ that includes mainly the South China Sea (SCS). This implies that the region should be free from threats and the environment should be conducive ‘for sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and social progress’. According to Article 1.8, the ASEAN is also expected to effectively respond to all forms of threats that include both traditional and non-traditional challenges. Importantly, the group is expected to work on the principles of cooperation, shared commitment, and collective responsibility to protect the harmonious and prosperous environment of the region.

However, peace is eluding this strategically important SCS. The challenges for the ASEAN have enormously increased in recent times. Tension is growing with US-China tussle, Taiwan-China risky military manoeuvres, Chinese assertion of its claim over in the illegal nine-dashed-line, targeting of boats of other claimants, obstructing drilling operations of other countries in their EEZs, creation of artificial islands in disputed areas and placing weapons on them. For China, the SCS is an important base for its further expansion in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China is also destroying the ecology of the region by recklessly creating dams and dikes on the Mekong river to control the flow of the waters and use this power to coerce the lower riparian countries. Besides, China is also using its economic power to divide the ASEAN. The severe adverse impact of the pandemic on economy on the member countries is also palpable. The global impact is creating even more unfavourable conditions for multilateralism than the ones that were already giving rise to inward-looking, nationalist and populist regimes in many countries.

The above pose formidable challenges for the group.  Last year, the group under the Chair of Vietnam dealt with some of the problems exceedingly well in a highly matured manner. China was keeping the group divided through its approach based on coercion and allurement. A divided ASEAN posed a serious challenge when Vietnam assumed the Chairman’s position. Realising the need for unity, under the theme of “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN 2020” the Chairman’s statement emphasised ‘the need to enhance ASEAN’s unity, cooperation and solidarity, economic integration for addressing the challenges brought about by rapid changes in the regional and global landscape’.  The Chairman’s statement at the 36th ASEAN Summit reflected the much-needed unified approach. It was indeed a significant achievement given the fact that since 2012, no joint statement could be issued.  The decision to give a fresh chance to unite ASEAN had the clear imprimatur of the then Vietnamese PM Xuan Phuc (now President of Vietnam) stamped on it.

Vietnam had been trying hard for the last several years to ensure that the region should be governed by the international law and norms. The Chairman’s statement also reaffirmed boldly that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones, and the 1982 UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.

Vietnam as the Chair of ASEAN also took a number of timely steps to deal with the pandemic. The ASEAN Chair in mid-February drew the attention to the risks of the virus and called for regional and international cooperation. Later, the Vietnam organised online Special ASEAN+3 Summit on the Covid-19 response and asked the countries to take necessary steps for protection. The countries agreed to exchange experience and support each other with medical supplies. Vietnam participated in several international virtual meetings and shared its experience and proposed measures to deal with the pandemic. The Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund was established.

Vietnam also supplied the much-needed medical equipment and protective gears not only in the region but beyond in Asia, Europe, US and South America. It emerged as an effective disease control model with a very few cases in the country. Vietnam’s assistance to others suggests that It takes its international responsibilities equally seriously and is not an inward-looking nation.

The process of Mid-Term Review for the three ASEAN Community Blueprints 2025 was undertaken. It decided to finalise soon the project on the “Development of an ASEAN Database on Trade Routes and Framework for Enhancing Supply Chain Efficiency”.

Vietnam successfully worked multilaterally, respecting allies and committing to a predictable set of well-thought policies which aligned ways, means and ends of all concerned. This resulted in developing cooperation among the nations. Given the crisis enveloping the world, Vietnam’s objective under its Chairmanship remained preservation of unity of ASEAN despite efforts to undermine it. This reflects not only a high level of leadership and diplomatic ability, but also its astuteness and awareness of the ASEAN’s value as also its limitations.

Vietnam is also the non-Permanent Member of UNSC and has ably handled there some ticklish issues. Vietnam also approached UNSC for the implementation of the PCA Ruling. Malaysia and Indonesia followed Vietnam and several other nations are supporting this move. Vietnam is now the bellwether of the approach of other nations within the ASEAN and outside on the approach towards the PCA Ruling. The recent wave of complaints to UN, has the potential to put China under severe pressure on the issue of its unjustified claim.

The situation in the region is still precarious and demands dexterous handling by the ASEAN. Vietnam’s consistent opposition to allow the issue to become bilateral one between China and individual claimant countries, has earned respect from other members. Whether Vietnam is holding the Chair or not, other members look towards Vietnam’s moves to follow. The current Chair Brunei Darussalam has a limited influence over other members besides it has its own problems.

There are number of tasks which received due attention in the last year but they still need Vietnam’s continued lead role. Besides the ASEAN Community Blueprints 2025, the Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations are reaching at a crucial stage needing Vietnam’s strong leadership to have a meaningful negotiation with China on the basis of equality. The current theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper” demands joint efforts to pursue the plan of action and exploit the opportunities, keeping in view the challenges faced by the ASEAN in the current scenario.

Since last year, Vietnam has emerged as the de facto leader of the South East Asian Nations without causing a ripple and that goes to the credit of the Vietnamese diplomacy coupled with steps to support others during the pandemic. In the interest of peace and prosperity of the region, it is desirable that Vietnam should continue to provide guidance to the ASEAN, carry on dialogue with its partners, make deft steps in the UNSC and deal with unjust demands firmly of China. ASEAN also has to collaborate with other countries for the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative in which ASEAN’s role would be central. This is similar to the ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam with its experience and ability to carry all the members and other nations with it, can significantly contribute in this regard as it has excellent relations within the ASEAN as also with external powers that include strategic competitors like US, Russia and with China it has apt relations-firmly defending its sovereignty and opposing the unjust demands, while maintaining relations to avoid conflicts.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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