August 6, 2017 3:02 am JST

Vietnam defies China's maritime aggression

Rest of ASEAN shrugs its shoulders at South China Sea issue

CLIFF VENZON, Nikkei staff writer

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, second from left, is escorted by Zhao Jianhua, left, China's ambassador to the Philippines, upon arriving in Pasay City, suburban Manila, on August 5. © AP

MANILA -- Vietnam has emerged as Southeast Asia's loudest voice in resisting China's expansionist moves in the South China Sea.

At a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that began here on Saturday, the Vietnamese delegation has been the only party pushing for a "legally binding" code of conduct in the South China Sea, according to a draft joint communique.

The communique, which is often subject to diplomatic wrangling during its drafting, is meant to reflect a consensus among the 10 member countries and project the bloc's core principle of unity and centrality.

The other ASEAN foreign ministers either want to strike out the "legally binding" qualifier or are "flexible" on the matter, according to a draft as of Friday night.

The foreign ministers of ASEAN and China are preparing to adopt a "framework" for a code of conduct in the South China Sea when they meet on Sunday. The framework, which provides a general outline for a discussion on what the actual rules will be, does not say whether the code is legally binding.

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh of Vietnam told the Nikkei Asian Review in June that the bloc would aim for a legally binding code. But some regional diplomats say China prefers the opposite.

China is trying to lay claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, including areas that ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines regard as part of their respective territorial waters.

In the draft communique, Vietnam also wants to underscore the "extended construction" in disputed areas, a reference to the massive island-building activities China has carried out to bolster its claims. Malaysia, for its part, has expressed concern regarding the "presence of military assets" in the disputed area. All 10 members are calling for "self-restraint in the conduct of all activities that could further escalate tensions in the South China Sea."

Vietnam was still pushing its position as of late Saturday, prompting diplomats to push back the release of the communique to Monday at the earliest, after they conclude meetings with other dialogue partners, such as the U.S., Japan and Russia. 

Vietnam is trying to rein in China even as its neighbors have toned down condemnations of Beijing's expansionary claims.

The Philippines used to be Beijing's most vocal critic regarding South China Sea matters. In 2015, Manila and Hanoi established a strategic partnership to counter China. However, Manila changed its diplomatic approach last year, following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte, this year's ASEAN chair, has set aside the maritime dispute in exchange for $24 billion worth of economic pledges from China. His ASEAN chairman statement during the summit in April ignored the new islands and their apparent militarization. Duterte's statement was seen by analysts as a diplomatic victory for Beijing, which in recent years has lobbied for friendlier ASEAN statements on its claims to the South China Sea. 

Vietnam has one of the most expansive claims and is among the most aggressive in exploring for oil in the South China Sea. Richard Heydarian, a geopolitical analyst in Manila, said Vietnam would be the "biggest loser" should China take full control of the important waterway.

The last thing Vietnam wants, he said, "is a soft ASEAN statement on China. And [Hanoi has been] consistent with [its] position since 2010, unlike the Philippines, which has flip-flopped."

While it may seem a lonely fight, Heydarian said Vietnam's hard-line stance is important. He explained that it creates an opening for other regional powers to be involved in the issue even as the bloc is increasingly gravitating toward China and its growing economic clout.

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