Asian Re­view: Viet­nam’s COC ob­struc­tion can be over­come

Global Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Li Kaisheng

The next round of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween China and ASEAN on the Code of Con­duct (COC) in the South China Sea is ex­pected in the first quar­ter of this year. Ac­cord­ing to Reuters, which claimed to have seen a ne­go­ti­at­ing draft of the COC, Viet­nam hopes the agree­ment will out­law China’s many steps across the dis­puted wa­ters re­cently, con­sist­ing of ar­ti­fi­cial is­land con­struc­tion and mis­sile de­ploy­ment. It also re­veals Viet­nam is try­ing to pro­hibit any new Air De­fense Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Zone. Ad­di­tion­ally, Viet­nam wants to clar­ify the “nine-dash line” ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional laws in the COC, which is pro­posed by China.

There is a dif­fer­ence in China and Viet­nam’s po­si­tions on the South China Sea. China adopts a com­pre­hen­sive stance in deal­ing with the dis­pute, tak­ing his­tor­i­cal claims as well as UNCLOS into ac­count.

Viet­nam’s claim re­lies more on West­ern ideas, such as UNCLOS, in­stead of re­fer­ring to his­tory, which Hanoi used to base its pro­pos­als on. Viet­nam is try­ing to in­ter­na­tion­al­ize the dis­pute by seek­ing sup­port of other claimants and in­ter­na­tional pow­ers like the US to con­tain China.

Viet­nam’s new claim on the COC is con­sis­tent with this shift.

The pro­vi­sions that Viet­nam is push­ing for re­flect its se­cu­rity con­cerns to­ward China and its op­po­si­tion against Bei­jing’s con­struc­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands, al­though re­cent friendly ties mask these con­flicts.

Last Novem­ber, China ap­pealed to com­plete ne­go­ti­a­tions be­fore 2021. In 2020, Viet­nam will hold the ASEAN chair, which will be a sig­nif­i­cant time for COC ne­go­ti­a­tions. Hanoi will be un­der cer­tain diplo­matic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sure then. It is Viet­nam’s tac­tics to put for­ward its claims first to have the up­per hand in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Ob­sta­cles, such as Viet­nam’s re­cent claims, are in­evitable with the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the COC.

In other ASEAN coun­tries, like the Philip­pines, there are a group of peo­ple assert­ing that Manila and other bloc na­tions should fully sup­port Viet­nam’s stance against China in ne­go­ti­at­ing the COC. Al­bert Del Rosario, who was for­eign af­fairs sec­re­tary of the Philip­pines and led ef­forts to take the dis­pute with China be­fore an in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion tri­bunal, is one of them.

How­ever, the Philip­pines un­der Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has adopted a rel­a­tively friendly at­ti­tude to­ward China. Hence, the coun­try is un­likely to back Viet­nam’s pro­posal. Bei­jing has close eco­nomic and trade ties with Manila and is its largest trad­ing part­ner. The Philip­pines tends to be neu­tral in diplo­macy, in­clud­ing in dis­putes be­tween China and the US. There­fore, Manila is un­will­ing to alien­ate China and fer­ment more ten­sions on the South China Sea.

An­other im­por­tant claimant is Malaysia, which has al­ways adopted prac­ti­cal diplo­macy, es­pe­cially af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Ma­hathir Mo­hamad took of­fice. Ma­hathir is likely to sup­port Viet­nam’s pro­pos­als but it is im­pos­si­ble for him to take the lead and strongly back them. Last July, Ma­hathir an­nounced the can­cel­la­tion of three Belt and Road ini­tia­tive projects: the East Coast Rail Link and two gas pipe­lines, the Multi-Prod­uct Pipe­line and Trans-Sabah Gas Pipe­line.

Cur­rently, Kuala Lumpur is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a run-in pe­riod with Bei­jing. But a big row with China on the South China Sea is not con­sis­tent with Malaysia’s in­ter­ests.

When deal­ing with the di­ver­gence with ASEAN in COC ne­go­ti­a­tions, China should achieve trade-offs. Faced with the strate­gic en­vi­ron­ment of fierce China-US com­pe­ti­tion, strength­en­ing ties with neigh­bor­ing coun­tries is China’s ba­sic strat­egy. The South China Sea is­sue can­not be avoided when com­mu­ni­cat­ing with ASEAN mem­bers. Ex­cept for main­tain­ing some fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples, in­clud­ing his­tor­i­cal claims, ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands un­der con­struc­tion, which Bei­jing can­not make a com­pro­mise with, China can ease ten­sions on other fronts to win ASEAN’s trust.

For ex­am­ple, China can pro­vide an in­sti­tu­tional guar­an­tee for re­gional peace to con­vince sur­round­ing coun­tries that it will not take the ini­tia­tive to re­sort to force to re­solve dis­putes. China can make more con­tri­bu­tion in bring­ing about flex­i­ble and cre­ative ini­tia­tives on re­lated so­lu­tions to ad­dress dis­putes.

The au­thor is a re­search fel­low at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions, the Shang­hai Academy of So­cial Sciences. opin­[email protected] glob­al­times.com.cn

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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