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"How to Read Hanoi’s Position on the South China Sea COC?" by Le Hong Hiep

2019/1, 3 January 2019

On 31 December 2018, Reuters reported that Vietnam is pushing for certain provisions in the negotiating draft of the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea which will likely “prove unpalatable to Beijing”. The report indicates that Hanoi is seeking to outlaw many actions that China has undertaken in the South China Sea over the years, including artificial island building, blockades and offensive weaponry deployments. It also insists that states should clarify their maritime claims in accordance with international law. More interestingly, Hanoi calls for a ban on any new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.

Previously, Vietnam was just known as pushing for an COC that is legally binding and applicable to the whole South China Sea. The above demands therefore shed more light on where Vietnam stands on the COC, as well as how it views security threats from China in the South China Sea.

The previous mode of discussion was done through ASEAN. The current phase requires individual ASEAN countries to state their national priorities. Here Vietnam has no choice but to be more explicit about its concerns.

However, among the demands, only the call for no new ADIZ in the South China Sea is noteworthy, as Hanoi has long protested China’s other actions, such as artificial island building and dispute militarization. Hanoi has also called for claimant states to clarify their maritime claims in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS on many occasions.

Hanoi’s call for an ADIZ ban confirms its concerns that Beijing will at some point establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea like what it did in the East China Sea in 2013. Beijing, on the other hand, has declared that it has the rights to safeguard national security with any means, including establishing an ADIZ in the South China Sea, in response to the level of threat it faces. There is an implicit threat by China that if the US and its allies increase their military actions, it will declare an ADIZ.  in the region. As the saying goes, “prevention is better than cure”, Hanoi’s call for the ban is therefore a wise pre-emptive move that will put Beijing in the spotlight should it consider this option.

It is anticipated that Beijing will reject the above demands by Hanoi. Similarly, Vietnam and certain other ASEAN members will also reject China’s two key demands: i) Military drills with outside powers in the South China Sea are to be blocked unless all signatories agree; and ii) Limiting joint development deals to China and Southeast Asian states. As such, the COC negotiation between China and ASEAN will prove to be testy, and probably prolong beyond the three-year deadline suggested by Chinese Premier Li Kejiang.

However, it should be noted that as this is the initial stage of the negotiation, all parties are aiming high to create more room for possible compromises. It is therefore important to observe if Vietnam and China make any concessions along the way, and if they do, on what issue and to what extent.

Given China’s maritime ambitions and its wish to effectively control the South China Sea, Vietnam and other like-minded ASEAN member states will have a hard time bargaining for concessions from China. Their main leverage in the talk is perhaps the increasing pressure from the United States and its allies on China over the South China Sea. But while China may consider these pressures seriously and soften its future approach to the dispute, it is even more likely that China will defy these pressures and harden its stance, especially at a time when the Chinese leadership need to show their people that China will stand firm against US pressures in the intensifying confrontation between the two powers.

Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.