ASEAN Annual Summit: Southeast Asian countries display unity in unprecedented strong statement on South China Sea dispute, Vietnam increasingly assertive

ASEAN Annual Summit:  Southeast Asian countries display unity in unprecedented strong statement on South China Sea dispute, Vietnam increasingly assertive

Held in the form of a video conference due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN's 36th Summit Chairman's Statement, issued by Vietnam upon consulting of all member states, openly manifested “concerns” (the diplomatic language anticipating a more assertive stance) with regard to the regional and international issues and developments related to China's claims in South China Sea, appealing to the status quo established by International Law in the form of 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The document underscored the “progress of the substantive negotiations” with regard to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), while recalling “the importance of upholding international law”. At the same time, the statement warned that continuing the land reclamation may “undermine peace, security and stability in the region” and has already “eroded trust and confidence”.

While the document does not directly pinpoint China as the source of the land disputes, in line with the diplomatic language used in such statements, the message clearly alludes to the recent developments in the region.

Moreover, despite the tremendous importance China attaches to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) associated projects in Southeast Asia, no mention of the BRI was made. Instead, the document dedicated an entire sub-chapter to the ASEAN Connectivity 2025 Master Plan, an ASEAN project designed to address regional trade and infrastructure development.

Economically speaking, the statement notes the progresses achieved in economic negotiations with China, attaching an equal importance to those with the European Union, Australia or Japan, for that matter.

The document sets two new directions in ASEAN's regional policy:

  • Firstly, by recalling the importance of upholding international law, ASEAN openly – yet diplomatically – admits the existent breech of law with regard to China's conduct in the South China Sea. The warnings issued in the statement further add weight to the argument signaling a position of strength and unity at the level of the Southeast Asian regional organisation.

  • Secondly, despite the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia and China being the largest trade partner of ASEAN, no privileged position is allotted to the People's Republic of China. This may signal a sudden realisation of the ASEAN countries that placing even part of the supply chain outside the region (namely in China) could affect the member states' capacity to react in times of economic duress. The much needed medical protection equipment manufactured in China is an illustrative example in this case.

Finally, the document places Vietnam not only at the forefront of ASEAN (as it currently holds the rotative annual chairmanship of the Association), but similarly as the new powerhouse in the region. After having ratified a landmark Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, Vietnam becomes the second ASEAN country, after Singapore, to benefit of EU's tariffs lift. Also known for edging closer to the United States, Vietnam docked USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in its Da Nang port on March 2020, most likely in a bold move to counterbalance Beijing's presence in the area.

After rumours circulated last month indicated Vietnam is seeking for another ASEAN Chairmanship in 2021, on the grounds of the current pandemic outburst, Vietnam is far from having a “lost year”: benefiting of excellent relations with both the EU and the US, the Southeast Asia nation has all the chances of becoming ASEAN's next powerhouse and senior diplomatic force.

How would such a change affect the status quo in the region is only a matter of speculation.

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* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.