“Vietnam and ASEAN Re-lift the Bar for South China Sea Statements” by Le Hong Hiep

2017/49, 8 August 2017

The 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) last week managed to issue a joint communiqué that contains stronger language on the South China Sea than the Chairman’s Statement issued at the 30th ASEAN Summit last April. By emphasizing, for example, “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation” in the South China Sea, the communiqué is virtually on par with the one issued last year at the 49th AMM.

The adoption of the joint communiqué was a relief to many observers who have been concerned that the Philippines, as the host of the meeting, may try again to water it down so as not to offend China. While there are various factors contributing to such an outcome, Vietnam, in particular, played a role reportedly by persisting hard on the insertion into the communiqué strong language on a host of issues, ranging from concerns over the “extended construction” and the militarization of artificial islands, to the call for a “legally-binding” Code of Conduct (CoC) in the sea.

A number of factors may have led Vietnam to adopt a harder stance on the South China Sea than it did at the ASEAN Summit last April.

Following an incident last month in which China reportedly threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratlys should Vietnam not stop its oil drilling at a block within its continental shelf, Vietnam found it necessary to at least speak up against China to safeguard its interests in the South China Sea. A good way for Hanoi to do so is to utilize the ASEAN channels to avoid upsetting Beijing directly.

The incident, in which Vietnam backed down to avoid an armed confrontation with China, drew strong criticism from Vietnamese netizens and damaged the credibility of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and its leaders as the protectors of the country’s national interests. Vietnam’s efforts at the Meeting, which have been portrayed by some observers as a “lonely fight,” to challenge China’s maritime ambitions may therefore help boost the public confidence in the Party and its leadership.
Other factors may have weighed in, too. For example, Vietnam may have become more confident after the United States under President Trump has shown continuity in its policy towards the South China Sea disputes, while Vietnam’s relations with Japan and India, both of whom have endorsed Vietnam’s positions on the issue to varying degrees, have kept strengthening.
Hanoi may have played a role in the episode, but it is the remaining nine ASEAN members and ASEAN as a whole who should be duly commended for their collective efforts in maintaining intra-ASEAN consensus. It would have been ASEAN’s loss if member states had failed to adopt a proper common stance on such a key security issue on its doorstep on the eve of its 50th anniversary.
Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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