Vietnam’s Role In ASEAN’s Unity, Peace And Stability: Some Considerations To Resolve South China Sea Disputes – OpEd
As the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, Indonesia will be organizing the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, from May 10–11, which will also be attended by Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.
Pham will have a bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on May 9, 2023 to discuss bilateral and regional issues in Labuan Bajo.
Since its initiation into ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam has gradually become an active, self-motivated, and responsible member, as seen from its practical contributions toward the group’s unity, maturity, and growth. Some of them include the adoption of the 2007 ASEAN Charter, the Hanoi Declaration on ASEAN Vision 2020, the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, and Master Plans implementing the three pillars of politics-security, economics, and culture-society. It has also helped ASEAN partner with non-regional players, including China, Russia, India, and the European Union (EU).
Its membership in ASEAN has crucial social, political, economic, and security implications. It integrated its security with the rest of Southeast Asia and created a favourable environment for economic development, which has improved national industrialization and modernization in the context of regional integration. This raised Vietnam’s global image, leading to greater bargaining clout with superpowers like the United States and China. As a beneficiary of the US-China trade war, it is using this opportunity to pursue further reforms to ensure its place in the new shifts in global value chains.
Economically speaking, Vietnam is optimistic. Its present GDP is $420.75 billion, while its per capita nominal GDP is $4,217. Thanks to its prudent economic policies and 17 free trade agreements (FTAs), Vietnam has become the fastest growing economy in 2022. Its gross domestic product grew 8.02 percent in 2022, just behind Malaysia, whose GDP grew 8.7 percent in 2022. Its total trade reached $730 billion in 2022.
Foreign investors are pouring money into Vietnam to take advantage of its membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and other FTAs. Vietnam attracted $27.76 billion in foreign direct investments in 2022.
Meanwhile, trade revenues between Vietnam and ASEAN rocketed to over $80 billion in 2022, up from $56.3 billion in 2018 and $5.9 billion in 1996. ASEAN’s current combined GDP is $3.75 trillion.
For the last 28 years, Vietnam has also been working hard to secure peace and reconciliation among ASEAN nations, which were once deeply divided by war. It assists with handling the differences that arise between member nations and promotes a common stance and voice in regional affairs. It has also helped to expand relations and promote cooperation between ASEAN and its partners, enhancing ASEAN’s international role, especially its central and decisive role in regional forums, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM+).
South China Sea Disputes
The South China Sea (SCS) is a vital maritime route linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. According to several economists, around $5.3 trillion worth of global trade passes through these waters. China claims more than 90 percent of the SCS based on a controversial “Nine-Dash Line” map, which was declared illegal by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016.
As the second-biggest claimant state in the SCS after China, Vietnam strongly opposes this map. It has a dispute with China over the Tokin Gulf. Its Paracel Islands are also being claimed by China. Meanwhile, the Spratly Islands are being claimed by Vietnam, China Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam.
China seized the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the Johnson South Reef of the Spratly Islands in 1988. In 2014, it illegally placed a drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.
Vietnam is not alone. A Chinese fishing ship collided with an Indonesian Navy ship in the North Natuna Sea in 2016. Chinese Coastguard vessels and fishing militia have also been harassing Filipino fishermen for several years.
Vietnam and other ASEAN members have upheld the principle of dispute settlement by peaceful means, making a significant contribution to enhancing stability and cooperation in Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s shared stance and central role have enabled Vietnam to apply regional principles and mechanisms to consolidate its position in safeguarding its sovereign rights and interests in the SCS, or East Sea.
According to ASEAN, all claimants must stick to the international maritime regulations mentioned in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to resolve disputes. Both ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002. However, it is not strong enough to maintain peace in the SCS.
“The DOC is not legally binding, making it a voluntary and weak agreement. It is a toothless agreement and has been ineffective in the resolution of differences on the East Sea issue,” Pham Panh Bang, a Vietnamese scholar, wrote in the Eurasia Review journal recently.
Vietnam has been striving to put the SCS on ASEAN’s agenda and ensure disputes are dealt with in a constructive way. It has shown consistent support for the DOC, ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea, and the soon-to-be-concluded Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (COC). All ASEAN countries must sign the COC with China as it is their primary responsibility to maintain peace and stability of the region.
Hanoi calls for the settlement of disputes by peaceful means based on international law and the 1982 UNCLOS, including through regulations on respecting EEZs and the continental shelf of coastal countries.
“To maintain the stable situation in the East Sea in the future, ASEAN members need to unite and work together as a family. All claimant countries in ASEAN, especially Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, should proactively play a key role in all ASEAN forums. ASEAN should focus on increasing its solidarity among its member states with the objective of respecting international laws, protecting common interests, thereby reducing the risk of conflicts,” Pham said.
In an effort to respect the international laws and rules, it is the duty of the all claimant statements to sign a COC in the SCS. The flexibility and inclusivity are the great strengths of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which is a strategic priority for all ASEAN countries. The AOIP was formulated to guide cooperation and promote an enabling for peace, stability and prosperity while upholding the rules-based regional security architecture.
It is the time to change the name of the South China Sea to Southeast Asia Sea as it is called in Vietnam as the East Sea and in the Philippines it is called the West Philippine Sea. In Indonesia, it is called North Natuna Sea. Better if it is called the Southeast Asian Sea in stead of the SCS.
Vietnam is a peace-loving country. It wants to resolve all its East Sea disputes by working with ASEAN and the United Nations to maintain peace and stability in the region. It is also a strong supporter of Indonesia as the ASEAN Chairman for 2023 and ASEAN’s ongoing efforts to conclude a Code of Conduct in the SCS with China. From ASEAN’s side, all claimants must maintain self-restraint and follow international maritime rules.
Veeramalla Anjaiah is a Jakarta-based senior journalist and author of the book “Azerbaijan Seen from Indonesia”.