The South China Sea conflict will dominate Vietnam’s agenda as ASEAN chair

The Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Supreme (FFG 73), front, leads the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93), the Republic of Singapore Navy corvette RSS Vigour (FFG 92), and RSS Stalwart (FFG 72) in a formation. The ships are participating in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Singapore 2011. CARAT is a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and enhance force readiness.he Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Supreme (FFG 73), front, leads the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93), the Republic of Singapore Navy corvette RSS Vigour (FFG 92), and RSS Stalwart (FFG 72) in a formation. Photo: US Navy

As Vietnam assumes the ASEAN chair for 2020, its geopolitics are increasingly defined by how it manages Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

By Skylar Lindsay

“It’s time for us to think and act as a united and cohesive body so as to respond effectively and develop sustainably in a constantly changing world. Think as a community, act for the community.”

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke at the closing of the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in early November, as Thailand passed on the rotating position of ASEAN chair to Vietnam for 2020. The prime minister was pitching his country’s focus for its tenure as chair: “Cohesive and Responsive.”

While the slogan is broad and couched in the language of ASEAN unity, it points directly to the issue that will largely define Vietnam’s foreign policy over the next year: that of the contested South China Sea. In recent months, China’s bout with Vietnam over disputed waters off the county’s coast has grown increasingly intense.

Vietnam’s geopolitical role is larger than the South China Sea issue, with its fast-growing economy and track record of balancing competing foreign influences. But as Hanoi steps into the role of ASEAN chair, its dispute with Beijing threatens to define the country’s role in regional and global politics.

Photo Credit: Department of Defense

The South China Sea issue has hung over ASEAN for years

Since 2014, ASEAN has channelled significant efforts and resources to addressing the South China Sea conflict and establishing a joint code of conduct with China. Though the political transition in Thailand limited the potential for progress under its chairmanship, the block has continued to push for a consensus on the conflict, with Vietnam leading the charge and Cambodia, ever-sympathetic to its patrons in Beijing, blocking the way.

China’s claims to contested waters aren’t particularly new, but Beijing has adopted much more assertive strategies in recent years. 

Relations between the two powers have become increasingly tense since July when a Chinese survey vessel and two coastguard ships entered Vietnamese-controlled waters to conduct a seismic study. The area, known as Vanguard Bank, falls under Vietnamese sovereignty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). July’s spat came on the heels of China’s ballistic missile tests in the sea.

If Vietnam can’t rally ASEAN as chair, what next?

Vietnam’s ability to push through a resolution on the South China Sea will greatly impact how the region and the international community view its geopolitical clout.

Vietnam has identified five pillars for its term as ASEAN chair: regional security, regional connectivity, common values, global partnerships and ASEAN efficiency. While these pillars are primarily rhetorical, they provide a platform that Prime Minister Phuc will have to use to push for ASEAN consensus on the conflict.

In early November, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung said that his government would consider international legal mechanisms to restrain China’s advances if diplomatic efforts fail. 

There’s clear legal precedent for this, but it may not be effective. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in a case brought by the government in Manila and invalidated China’s claims to waters off the coast of the Philippine capital. The court’s ruling negated China’s “nine-dash line,” the perimeter that Beijing says denotes its territories throughout the South China Sea. It also ruled that China’s artificial island-building, and its extremely detrimental environmental impacts, is illegal under international law. 

But, perhaps predictably, China rejected the ruling outright, and still maintains claims to the Philippines’ waters. 

Given the limited progress through legal channels, Hanoi will likely try to leverage its position as ASEAN chair to build a consensus against Beijing before pursuing formal legal action. This may not prove any more effective in restricting Chinese incursions into waters controlled by ASEAN states, but it will represent a geopolitical victory for Vietnam none the less.

Vietnam last held the ASEAN chair in 2010. During its last chairmanship, it focused on improving security cooperation by backing a framework for coordination between ASEAN defence ministers. Then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung promoted internationalism and outward-facing policies for the regional block. If Vietnam can do the same this time around—focus on regional cohesion in the context of security—there’s a good chance it can convince the regional block to take a stance against China’s advances.