Vietnam’s tough stance against China over sovereignty of the South China Sea will put Beijing on the defensive during regional talks on easing the regional maritime dispute, people who follow the process say.
Officials in Hanoi have suggested establishing a code of conduct that, among other things, would bar construction on artificial islands in the South China Sea and ban militarizing disputed features, said Carl Thayer, a University of New South Wales emeritus professor, in an online commentary about a preview of a draft code text written last year. Vietnam, he added, wants to ban any blockades of vessels and nix the possibility of any single country’s air defense identification zone.
Vietnam also would deem “unacceptable” any agreement excluding the sea’s Paracel Islands, which it claims but China effectively controls, according to a report posted by Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank project in the United States.
China’s island building
Analysts say China has landfilled and militarized more of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea than any of the other five claimants. It will oppose the Vietnamese agenda, further setting back the 23-year-old code of conduct process but keep it at the bargaining table to show it’s a good neighbor, they expect.
“Chinese hegemony of the South China Sea is not accepted by any of the states within the region,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
“The problem is, their asymmetric capabilities basically mean that they can’t push back,” he said. “The only way they can push back is to try to forge consensus on code of conduct or at least raising awareness that these issues still remain a core challenge to security and territorial sovereignty within the region.”
Code of conduct
After 23 years of on-again, off-again efforts, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China decided in 2017 to restart talks on a code of conduct aimed at preventing accidents while leaving sovereignty issues aside. China has said a final code should be signed by 2021.
Four association countries and Taiwan dispute China’s claims to about 90 percent of the sea. China and Vietnam have gotten into three clashes there since the 1970s.
Vietnam’s suggestions for the code, if they carry forward, would affect China the most because of its reach over the sea valued for fisheries, shipping lanes and energy reserves. China has reclaimed about 1,200 hectares of land to build out tiny islets and placed military hardware such as aircraft on some, maritime scholars believe.