Conflict in the East Sea Dominates Recent ASEAN Summit

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By Edward Barbour-Lacey

HANOI – Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Chief Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh, has revealed that one of the key topics at the recent 24th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit was the issue of the recent events between Vietnam and China over the East Sea (referred to as the South China Sea by China).

While tensions between the two countries have been simmering for some time over the disputed territory, the recent move by China to place a large US$1 billion oil rig in waters that Vietnam claims as its own has only served to ratchet up tension in the region.  The oil rig is located in what has been described as the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam.

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In a draft speech for the Summit, Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung stated that “China has brazenly moved its deep-water drilling rig escorted by over 80 armed and military vessels and many airplanes to the Vietnamese waters.”

Vietnam and China have a history of military conflict – over the past 40 years the two countries have engaged in one land conflict and two naval conflicts with each other.

RELATED: Vietnam Lodges Protest Against Chinese Oil Rig

A call for calm

The 24th ASEAN Summit was held in Myanmar and finished last Sunday. The theme of the recent meeting was entitled “Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community.”

The theme speaks to the perceived need by the members of the ASEAN community to put greater efforts into working together in order to promote peace and stability throughout the region, as well as further cementing the importance that the regional bloc plays on the international stage.

The ASEAN organization is an incredibly significant market with a combined population of over 600 million people and a combined GDP of about US$2.1 trillion dollars.

During the Summit, Vietnam pushed strongly for the regional bloc to take clear action against the aggressive moves by China. Among the clearest supporters of Vietnam’s position was the Philippines, which has also raised a territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands.

Additionally, Vietnam reiterated its statements about China’s act being a violation of international law, in particular the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea – both of which China signed.

A number of ASEAN leaders expressed their concern over China’s recent installation of an oil drilling rig and the accompanying destabilization in the region that is occurring.

The ASEAN leaders outlined the following steps which are to be taken in response to disagreements over disputed territories in the region:

  • Ask relevant parties to exercise restraint, without using or threatening to use force;
  • Settle disputes peacefully;
  • Comply with international law and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;
  • Fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea; and
  • Work towards early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the East Sea in order to ensure a peaceful and stable environment and prevent escalating tensions in the region.

This is the first time since 1995 that ASEAN has issued such a specific statement on a situation that threatens peace and maritime security in the East China Sea.

However, the Summit stopped short of issuing a formal criticism against China in its report issued after the meetings ended on Sunday.  Many analysts saw this as a victory for China, but it is clear that the issue is far from being resolved.

Over the weekend, Vietnam saw its largest anti-China protests in over five years.  The protesters appeared to have the tacit support of the government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, has responded to the calls by Vietnam and the Philippines by saying that the territorial disputes should not concern ASEAN and that the Chinese government was opposed to “one or two countries’ attempts to use the South Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and cooperation between China and ASEAN.”

Among the contributions that Deputy PM, FM Minh said Vietnam added to the ASEAN Summit were:

  • Prime Minister Dung gave a keynote speech on the implementation of the ASEAN Community by 2015, ASEAN’s future, and how the bloc should handle its relations with other countries – naturally including the East Sea events;
  • Contributing to enhancing solidarity and promoting the central role of ASEAN; and
  • Active and important contributions to the documents released during the Summit so that these documents reflect ASEAN’s priorities and future orientations.

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