Vietnam and the risk to Southeast Asia

A Vietnam marine surveillance vessel (R) attempts to enter a Chinese company’s work zone in the South China Sea is blocked by a Chinese Coast Guard ship (source: dpa)
A Vietnam marine surveillance vessel (R) attempts to enter a Chinese company’s work zone in the South China Sea is blocked by a Chinese Coast Guard ship (source: dpa)

Vietnam is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The government’s goals include further development, wider prosperity and a peaceful, cohesive society. Another key objective is to protect the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime rights, especially against an increasingly assertive China, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

China claims territorial rights to most of the South China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the ‘East Sea.’ This body of water stretches between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, and is bounded to the south by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Vietnam and China are locked in disputes over several uninhabited island groups, the Chinese programme of constructing fortified islands, and Beijing’s broader ambition to take the lion’s share of the ‘East Sea.’ China’s claims, supported by its strong naval presence, are not in accordance with international law.

At stake are valuable fishing and mineral rights in the South China Sea. More importantly, control of this littoral would give Beijing control over some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes.

The prospect of Chinese forces stationed astride East Asia’s main sea lane to the Indian Ocean and Europe is a major security concern. It has prompted the United States to send warships to the area, leading to a corresponding rise in naval ‘incidents.’

Faced with this threat, Vietnam has begun – albeit discreetly – to align more closely with the US. It is one of the nine countries participating in the US Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. US and Vietnamese officials have also begun talking about defence cooperation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hanoi last week. While the leaders of Vietnam and China were extolling their two countries’ friendship, Vietnam’s defence minister was meeting his Japanese counterpart to arrange for a warship to visit Cam Rahn Bay. This call at the strategic naval base once used by the US and Russians is a tangible expression of friendship – and its timing sends a message Beijing cannot ignore.

An essential pillar of Vietnam’s foreign policy is its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the end of 2015, this 10-nation organisation will formally become an economic community with the free exchange of goods, services, people, capital and investment. Closer economic ties will boost trade and growth for all member states. A more tightly knit ASEAN will also be better able to pursue the political and security objectives that are part of its mandate.

Malaysia hosted an ASEAN summit last week. To the understandable disappointment of Vietnam and the Philippines, the summit did not adopt a resolution on the situation in the South China Sea. Quite simply, some members were reluctant to cross Beijing on this issue, especially given the trade and financial interests at risk.

Such disunity encourages and advances China’s expansionist strategy, which is responsible for growing political and military tensions in the region. If the nations of Southeast Asia wish to preserve their autonomy vis-à-vis the larger powers, they must use ASEAN as a framework to support each other. As history shows, timidity and short-sightedness can be gravediggers of peace.

Related statements:

Ignoring the real and present danger of war
Vietnam: setting out its stall for business

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