Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addresses regional leaders during the ASEAN Summit, held online because of the Covid-19 pandemic, in Hanoi on June 26, 2020. Photo: AFP / Luong Thai Linh

Vietnam came out with one of the toughest ASEAN Chair statements on the South China Sea in years as the country gathered leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a virtual summit on June 26.

The move marks another milestone in a growing regional pushback against China’s expansive maritime claims and recent actions in the contested sea. But the statement also expressed worries about the sea turning into an arena for a great-power showdown with serious implications to regional peace and stability. 

While responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery dominated the agenda, Hanoi delivered on the expectations for a stronger position on the disputed sea. In outlining concerns over the South China Sea, it cited “recent developments” and “serious incidents,” phraseology not mentioned in past ASEAN Chair statements.

These two terms may pertain to China’s naming of features (mostly underwater) and the establishment of two new research stations and two new administrative entities to govern its sweeping claims over the semi-enclosed sea.

Beijing also stepped up efforts to interfere on fishing and oil exploration activities off Vietnam and Malaysia. In April, a Chinese government vessel was also involved in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Chinese navy ship reportedly aimed its radar gun to a Philippine Navy patrol vessel. Thus the insertion of these new terms underpin increasing unease of regional countries over their big northern neighbor.

As chair of the 36th ASEAN Summit, Vietnam also scored against the foundations of China’s maritime claims. The Chairman’s Statement said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones, and the 1982 UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.”

This is a repudiation of Beijing’s claims, which are anchored on historic rights and its attempts to draw baselines from high-tide features as a basis for projecting maritime entitlements over the sea.

China’s response to Malaysia’s continental-shelf submission last December elicited a flurry of notes verbale from South China Sea littorals and even the United States. These diplomatic letters addressed to the United Nations secretary general echoed what was set out in the statement challenging China’s claims as contrary to international law.

Manila, Jakarta and Washington also referenced the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling. That landmark award invalidated historic rights as having been superseded by UNCLOS. It also declared that none of the Spratly features qualify as an island eligible for an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf. 

Although the pandemic stalled talks for an “effective and substantive Code of Conduct,” ASEAN continue to stress its importance and the need to “maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations.” Recent developments and incidents certainly ran counter to this.

In addition, while the bloc continues to value confidence-building and preventive diplomacy, the recent Chairman’s Statement did not mention specific measures, unlike previous iterations.

For instance, during the Philippines’ and Singapore’s stints as chair in 2017 and 2018 respectively, the discussions between ASEAN and the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry to manage maritime emergencies and operationalization of a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea were quoted. Their absence in this and last year’s statements may augur political and bureaucratic hurdles that have to be overcome.  

Finally, in a thinly veiled reference, ASEAN also conveyed its concern about the long-running flashpoint becoming a theater for a US-China face-off.

The Chairman’s Statement stressed that ASEAN “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states … that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea” (emphasis supplied).

While the pandemic may put a dent on port visits and maritime exercises, US freedom-of-navigation and presence operations have picked up, leading to more stare-downs between the two competing naval powers. Absent appropriate communication and crisis-management measures and against the context of rising mutual enmity, some of these encounters may unwantedly go haywire, plunging the region into instability.

Washington’s announcement of a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in May also raises the stakes for potential conflict with China over the strategic waterway.  

Indeed, China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea amid a pandemic is eliciting a mounting pushback from ASEAN. This found expression in Vietnam’s Chairman’s Statement and may manifest in other means going forward.

At the same time, regional states also raised apprehension about the increasing contact between the US and Chinese navies as Washington and Beijing compete in an ever expanding menu of domains beyond access to maritime commons. In this backdrop, Southeast Asia would need more than fair winds to turn the South China Sea into a “sea of peace, stability and prosperity.”

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Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.