Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Phạm Quang Hiệu addresses the opening session of the 13th South China Sea International Conference held on Thursday. — VNA/VNS Photo Lâm Khánh
HÀ NỘI — The South China Sea International Conference with the theme of ‘Looking Back to a Brighter Future’ hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam opened on Thursday.
Addressing the opening ceremony, Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Phạm Quang Hiệu noted that “the South China Sea is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific and it is clearly a litmus test for peace, stability, and cooperation in the region.”
“Every development in the South China Sea region, positive, welcoming or otherwise, will easily set precedents to be replicated in the entire region and in other parts of the world,” he said, attributing this to the process of interactions among major powers as well as regional and multilateral organisations.
There were some encouraging developments in recent times, he noted, citing the continued dialogue on the South China Sea issue between all parties, the continued recognition of international law – especially the UNCLOS 1982 – as the legal foundation to maintain order at sea, and the resumption of ASEAN-China negotiations on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with certain progress being made.
He stressed Việt Nam always welcomed the efforts of regional and extra-regional countries to contribute to peace, stability, and cooperation in the South China Sea (called East Sea in Việt Nam), and that it was encouraging to see so many committed to a peaceful, prosperous, connected, and rules-based Indo-Pacific.
Việt Nam also expressed profound concerns over a potential arms race following a rapidly heightened level of military activities in the South China Sea – at sea, under the sea, in the air, and in space.
The Vietnamese deputy foreign minister also said the strategic competition between major powers and the emergence of new security arrangements are posing new challenges to the defining regional structure, and the role of ASEAN.
He hoped the conference could focus discussions on increasing dialogue and exchanges, especially claimant States, to manage disputes and arrive at mutually acceptable solutions; finding measures to consolidate order at sea in line with international law; how to build a multilateral regional security structure to effectively deal with traditional and non-traditional issues, with the ASEAN at the centre and find opportunities for countries to engage in oceanic cooperation, including blue economy, to better recovery efforts.
The panel discussions in the day were largely dominated by the growing strategic competition between US and China and the implications to the South China Sea and the entire region at large.
Kevin Rudd, Former Prime Minister of Australia and President and CEO of the Asia Society, pointed out China’s more assertive and forceful foreign policy due to its rising economic might and the US response to make China its main competitor – evidenced through the US National Security Strategy, has led to the current state of situation and dynamics.
However, to avoid a total collapse of foreign relations, the two need a doctrine to manage the strategic competition between the China and US to avoid war and conflicts by accident, with the construction of ‘guardrails.’
The Australian expert also hailed the role of ASEAN, despite others' criticism, especially in its capacity to bring peace and economic cooperation and subsequent growth to the region. The US-China relations have pushed ASEAN into a ‘strategic swing state’ position from the eyes of Beijing and Washington.
The newly formed alliance like the Quad or AUKUS will generally cause concerns among ASEAN as the regional bloc will be focused on even more through the lens of strategic competition, but many member states privately might appreciate the balancing mechanism these alliances brought to the table, which could help provide more space for the strategic autonomy ASEAN has sought for so long, he remarked.
He underlined the need for ASEAN to maintain its unity and anchor that unity in the “enduring principles of international law” to create a robust future in this most sensitive territorial issue, otherwise the results would be “catastrophic” when China – without changes in its strategic aspirations or territorial claims, has been switching tactics to engage more with each claimant state in the South China Sea in areas like resource join-research.
Derek Grossman, Senior Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation, US, said the trends in the South China Sea, in general, are “not good”, with maritime claimants “increasingly caught in the middle of” China’s bolstered stance and military, economic clout in the region and the US and outside the alliance’s ramped up military activities in response.
It still remains to be seen whether the concerted efforts between the US and allies could make China ‘dial back’ its assertiveness in the South China Sea, he remarked, adding that the recent Joe Biden-Xi Jiping summit indicates little hope for change.
Shuxian Luo, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, The Brookings Institution, in her keynote presentation, said both the US and China need to act to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
China needs to be committed to not declare an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, halt further reclamation and militarisation of the features in the South China Sea, as well as respect the rights to freedom of navigation in the waters here, she noted.
For its part, the US could cut down on the number of the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and have a commitment to not deploy ballistic missiles to areas near China, the expert argued.
Ding Duo, Associate Research Fellow of National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Deputy Director of Research Center for Oceans Law and Policy, China, said the increasing military activities of the US in the region raised the potential for clashes between China and the US.
The Chinese expert also underlined the ASEAN’s constant reaffirmation of its wish to ‘not having to pick a side,’ and it should be examined how far the US would respect that wish.
He said the US and China should work to avoid conflict and enhance military-to-military communications, while ASEAN and China could do more in “low-sensitive cooperation” like agriculture, marine environmental protection, and research, navigation safety, or maritime search and rescue.
Experts, scholars, and officials seem to converge on the idea that the US has not been engaging with Southeast Asia comprehensively enough on fronts other than security issues, leaving critical aspects like trade and commerce to be filled or exploited by China.
China and ASEAN (along with Asia-Pacific countries like Australia and Japan) were part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and all members are set to ratify the deal soon. Meanwhile, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), originally devised by the US as a counterweight against China’s trade power in the region, was abandoned under the US President Donald Trump’s administration, leaving other members of the TPP to the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The new US administration under Joe Biden however has not signified any move to join this pact, and has so far only hinted at a broader Indo-Pacific economic framework, while China itself has already expressed desire to join CPTPP as well.
The former Australian official called the US’ decision under both Democratic and Republican leadership to not proceed with the pact “regrettable,” adding that the question will be how the US can sustain its leadership in trade globalisation.
Derek Grossman also called for deepening of political and trade cooperation from the US and alliances with maritime claimants to make them “less susceptible to China’s coercive activities and more trusting of America’s staying power in and security commitments in the region.” — VNS
This year edition of DAV’s flagship international conference saw the in-person attendance of more than 180 delegates and more than 400 participants registered to attend online, including nearly 60 keynote speakers, who are prestigious experts from 30 countries, 90 representatives from foreign missions in Việt Nam (including 15 ambassadors).
Over the course of two days, the conference will hold eight different sessions covering various topics of interests like Cementing the legal order in the South China Sea, Constructing a Cooperative and Connected Indo-Pacific, ASEAN and the QUAD in the regional architecture, Promoting science diplomacy for common oceanic benefits, and Disrupted supply chains: how to ensure resilient sea lanes amid COVID-19.