The South China Sea File in ASEAN 2020

imagesVietnam takes on the rotating Chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the situation in the South China Sea is extremely intense and the US-China strategic competition is getting fiercer over the South China Sea issue. Following the harassment and encroachment in Vietnam's waters from July 4 to October 24 of Chinese survey vessel group Haiyang Dizhi 8, which consisted of several coast guard and militia vessels, the fact that Chinese law enforcement vessels continuously violated Indonesian waters during the few last days of December 2019 signals a not so peaceful and calm South China Sea in 2020.

Observers question how Hanoi will handle situation in the context of an increasingly aggressive China in the South China Sea. This is considered a big challenge for Vietnam as ASEAN Chair. How should Vietnam handle this situation so that it does not become tangled in the US - China competition; at the same time, taking advantage of the support from the US as well as the international community to protect its legitimate interests in the South China Sea while saving face for its northern neighbor?

Vietnam, the nation most affected by China’s claims in the South China Sea, is also the victim of Beijing’s intense pressure in 2019 in the incident of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 ship group. China repeatedly violated Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf for nearly 4 months. Observers are wondering what Vietnam needs to do as ASEAN Chair to push forth a multilateral solution to limit China's encroachment.

International analysts said that it is difficult for Vietnam to "steer the ASEAN ship” while there is fierce influence competition between the US and China over ASEAN:

- China pressures ASEAN on the South China Sea issue through negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC), wanting to push the US and its allies out of the region; China is also take the upper hand in infiltrating the ASEAN by bribing a few ASEAN countries, in which Cambodia is China’s “puppet”.

- The US refuses to let China control ASEAN; bluntly condemns China for bullying and coercing its neighbors during meetings with the ASEAN and even in bilateral meetings with China; openly calls for the ASEAN to have a stronger voice in opposing China's behavior in the South China Sea.

The fact that US President Donald Trump invited leaders of ASEAN countries to attend the US-ASEAN summit in the US at the beginning of 2020 is a clear sign.

The US' bolder attitude and actions on the South China Sea issue in 2019 is favorable for Vietnam, as ASEAN Chair, to push forth the South China Sea issue in ASEAN. However, how Vietnam can take advantage of this situation while refraining from “displeasing” Beijing remains a difficult problem.

Some positive moves by key members in ASEAN on the South China Sea issue in the last few days of 2019, after Thailand transferred the ASEAN Chairmanship to Vietnam:

(i) Malaysia submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf submission on December 12, 2019 in order to determine the continental shelf limit beyond 200 nautical miles in the northern South China Sea, which received a backlash from China. Responding to the press on December 20, 2019, Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah emphasized: “As for China, their claim that the entire South China Sea belongs to them, in my opinion, is truly ludicrous". This is considered the strongest reaction from Malaysia on the South China Sea issue so far.

(ii) Indonesia, after a long period of silence, on December 30, 2019, announced that Chinese maritime vessels had violated its EEZ near the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Earlier, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese ambassador to Jakarta and issued a protest about the Chinese law enforcement vessels’ violation of Indonesian “territorial sovereignty” - the waters surrounding Natuna area.

On the first day of 2020 (January 1), Indonesia sent Beijing "a new year gift" which was the Indonesian Foreign Ministry's Statement urging China to explain "clear legal basis and border" regarding their claim of the EEZ in accordance with UNCLOS 1982. Jakarta also reiterated the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration declaration that China had no legal basis to claim any historical rights to the marine resources within the "nine dash line".

These moves are favorable for Vietnam to push forth the South China Sea issue at multilateral forums within the framework of ASEAN 2020. As a matter of facts, Malaysia has had a dispute with Vietnam over Spratly Islands and overlapping waters. However, this is not a heated dispute, and the two countries do not take aggressive actions or threaten each other. On the contrary, the two sides have cooperated on issues of the South China Sea: (i) In 1992, Vietnam and Malaysia signed an Agreement on joint exploration and exploitation of overlapping waters located near the Gulf of Thailand, which is formed by the continental shelf boundary set by the two countries in accordance with the provisions of UNCLOS 1982; (ii) In 2009, both Vietnam and Malaysia submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf a joint report between the two countries on the delimitation of the outer continental shelf boundary exceeding 200 nautical miles in the South China Sea.

Indonesia has no dispute with Vietnam regarding the Spratly Islands, but the two countries have overlapping waters in the South China Sea. After negotiation efforts, in 2003, the two sides signed an Agreement on delimitation of the continental shelf between the two countries in this area. Currently, the two sides are actively negotiating to delimit the EEZ in this area.

The abovementioned Vietnam-Malaysia and Vietnam-Indonesia cooperation sets an important basis for Vietnam to work with Malaysia and Indonesia on the South China Sea issues within the ASEAN framework as both countries have weighted voices in the ASEAN. On the other hand, both Malaysia and Indonesia have independent policies, which focus on advancing security and defense cooperation with the US and other democratic countries.

China's consistent policy of dividing the ASEAN in order to not only easily dominate each individual Southeast Asian country, but also serve the goal of monopolizing the South China Sea and knock the US out of the region. As the ASEAN Chair, Vietnam must strive to take the lead in uniting ASEAN, to persuade the whole bloc on exposing China's threats. Vietnam needs to coordinate with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, etc. to promote ASEAN solidarity to have a strong consensus on the South China Sea issues; at the same time, creating a forum for the US and its ASEAN partners to criticize China's belligerent actions in the South China Sea.

China is a great power, but they cannot do whatever they want. The leaders in Beijing are also afraid of public opinion in the international community; they want to keep a "friendly face" to the world. Therefore, it is more urgent than ever to expose their aggressive actions to the public. Vietnam should not be afraid to take the lead in the South China Sea issues. It is time for Vietnam to spearhead the criticism of China's actions in the South China Sea. China cannot do anything to Vietnam when Vietnam follows international law as China also needs the relations with Vietnam and does not wish to let Vietnam lean towards the US.

Given Beijing's growing aggression, experts predict the South China Sea situation will continue to heat up at ASEAN forums in 2020.