Vietnam’s ASEAN Presidency marked by sustained focus on rule of law in South China Sea


NEW DELHI: Vietnam, an emerging power in the Indo-Pacific region, came out with flying colours as it hosted a series of ASEAN related summits and East Asia Summit notwithstanding constraints. The Vietnam Presidency laid a roadmap for ASEAN’s future in the Indo-Pacific region.

Vietnam has consolidated the ASEAN positions on regional issues including the fight against Covid-19 and balancing the bloc’s relationship with the U.S. and China. On the South China Sea (East Sea in Vietnam), Vietnam’s chairpersonship has been able to place emphasis on the relevance of UNCLOS. Vietnam’s success as the ASEAN chair was the bloc strongly emphasizing its principled stand on the South China Sea. This was achieved due to dynamism displayed by Vietnam as a ASEAN chair and bloc can stand up to Beijing’s aggression in SCS region.

Under Vietnam there was firmness of Asean’s resolve against China’s claims as the 10-nation bloc affirmed that UNCLOS should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea. As Asean chairman, Vietnam also quickly adapted and responded to the Covid pandemic by hosting the Asean summit on Covid and the Special Asean Plus Three summit on Covid.

On August 8, the 53rd anniversary of the establishment of ASEAN, the foreign ministers of ASEAN released a statement on the importance of peace and stability in the region. Experts opined that as a frontline littoral state, Vietnam has ensured that the SCS issue was given its due weight, unifying the bloc in expressing concern about developments that may undermine regional stability and run counter to a rules-based maritime order.

RCEP was finally signed under the chairmanship of Vietnam. Not only did Vietnam as a host played a key role in signing RCEP, Hanoi is expecting that India may be back to the negotiating table for RCEP. India after all is poised to play an active role by reemphasising on ASEAN centrality for Indo-Pacific construct or vision.

At the November 14 East Asia Summit (EAS) India expressed reservations against China’s latest move to push ASEAN to insert certain clauses in the proposed Code of Conduct on South China Sea (SCS) that could eventually deny India and others to either conduct joint military drills with SE Asian states or extract natural resources from the region.

The negotiation for the Code of Conduct on South China Sea “should not be prejudicial to the legitimate interests of the third parties and should be fully consistent with the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said in his remarks at EAS.

At the last 2 + 2 Ministerial meet in Delhi India and USA emphasised that the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law.

Chinese proposals for the Code of Conduct aim to limit the role of the external powers including India in the SCS region. Beijing has been pressurising the ASEAN to insert certain clauses in the Code of Conduct to restrict Japan, India, the US and Australia and other nations from engaging in maritime security cooperation with the South East Asian states and exploring resources in the South China Sea, ET has learnt. India has invested in the oil blocks in Vietnam and conducts annual Naval drills with a number of SE Asian states.

If China manages to get all the clauses included in the Code of Conduct, the ASEAN nations may have to get prior clearance from Beijing for joint military drills in the South China Sea with the US, Japan, India or any other nations from outside the region, indicated diplomatic sources.

It may make it challenging for ONGC Videsh Limited and similar entities of other nations including those from Russia to continue exploration of hydrocarbon and other resources in and around the disputed waters. China has been protesting the role of the OVL and other foreign companies in exploration of hydrocarbons in Vietnam.

The Code of Conduct was necessitated after China started building artificial islands in the SCS region over the last decade. Military facilities, including airstrips and radar towers have been created on these artificial islands.

China had initially been reluctant to enter into any negotiation with the ASEAN for a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. It finally agreed to launch negotiations in 2017. SCS is one the world’s busiest Sea Lanes of Communication with over 50 per cent of the global trade passing through the area. India has repeatedly called for Freedom of Navigation through SCS.

At the Summit Jaishankar, without naming China, also expressed India’s concern over aggressive moves in the South China Sea, including building military infrastructures in the disputed waters, and purported plan to create an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the disputed Pratas, Paracel and Spratly Islands. A Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement quoted the minister expressing concern about “actions and incidents that erode trust in the region”.

It is therefore prudent that India plays an active role in ensuring Freedom of Navigation and ADIZ in SCS region. Delhi may even consider playing a role in settling disputes in SCS given its interest in the region, according to some experts who specialise in SE Asian affairs.

Vietnam took the chairmanship of ASEAN when the organisation was facing challenges with regard to peace and security, climate change affects, and also the need for outlining the future for developing the region as an ASEAN community. The effective conduct of online meetings and maintaining the bloc’s centrality amidst a pandemic are Vietnam’s biggest achievements as ASEAN chair.

None of the ASEAN partners did not miss any online meeting hosted by Vietnam was its success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Hanoi deftly balanced the urgency of responding to the pandemic and stimulating economic recovery while pursuing the aspiration to foster ASEAN community-building and connectivity.

Vietnam has been able to promote ASEAN centrality and profile even at a time the region and the rest of the world was grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vietnam has effectively brought about comprehensive assessment of the institutional mechanisms within the organisation, and also reviewed the documents with regard to ASEAN community blueprints. The most important aspect which has been highlighted by Vietnam has been developing collective effort against the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishing joint groups related to public health emergencies. The challenges for the post COVID-19 recovery have already been considered by the ASEAN organisation and it was suggested that the organisation should undertake a comprehensive recovery framework as well as a time bound implementation plan.

Major initiatives which have been taken by Vietnam under the chairmanship included better cooperation on transnational crime, public security and coordination among the ASEAN law enforcement agencies. Recognizing the need for better financial architecture in Southeast Asia, Hanoi has brought about dialogue between financial institutions and banking sectors in Southeast Asia, and taking a cue from G-20 summits, it also addressed that there is a need for developing better organised financial architecture which can bring about financial stability.

Vietnam is not only the envy of its Covid-hit Southeast Asian neighbors, all of which will face severe economic contractions this year and only marginal recoveries in 2021, but it has also earned international plaudits for its resilience.

The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index published last month found that Vietnam’s international image was one of the Asia-Pacific’s best improvers this year, with its score on diplomatic influence gaining six percentage points. “The country registered the largest improvement in relative power of any [Asian] country – gaining 1.3 points in 2020,” the report stated. The Lowy Institute also found earlier this year that Vietnam had the third-highest improvement in international reputation because of its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, trailing only Taiwan and New Zealand.

Vietnams success as ASEAN chair lies in the fact that it handled pandemic well. This is key lesson from 2020. Vietnam will be one of the few nations worldwide to record positive economic growth in 2020 despite a global collapse in trade, travel and investment caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.The International Monetary Fund predicted this week that Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by 2.4% in 2020, following a 2.6% year-over-year economic boost in the third quarter. The international community can draw inspiration from Vietnam as the emerging Asian power.





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