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International experts: Vietnam's ASEAN Chairmanship and the South China Sea

International experts 1With China and the ASEAN agreeing on a single draft of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), many hope that in 2020, Vietnam, as Chair of ASEAN and the state with largest sovereignty in the South China Sea, would take the opportunity to lead the ASEAN Community towards greater coherence to serve their common interests in the negotiation with China, seeking satisfactory solutions to for the South China Sea issue, and the maintenance of regional peace. However, others also point out the differences among ASEAN countries’ approaches to the South China Sea issue prevents the Community from being a united bloc, thus lessening its voice on the world stage. Therefore, Vietnam, even as ASEAN Chair, might find it difficult to do much for the South China Sea.

Most experts agreed that ASEAN is divided over the South China Sea, hence a big challenge for Vietnam as its Chair to unite these countries to have a unified voice in this matter. Furthermore, there are many other issues facing ASEAN which Vietnam needs to handle and garner for a high consensus among members.

Revisiting the US-China “head-on” in the South China Sea lately

Revisiting the USChina head-on in the South China Sea latelyAs an extremely valuable sea for international trade, exploitation of economic resources and guarantee of the lifeblood of civil and military maritime traffic, the South China Sea is all the more a priority in the eyes of policymakers in many countries, inside and outside the region.

Even more so, experts and leaders of many countries consider it an effective geostrategic lever, so that any country with total control over the South China Sea will have the advantage in terms of strength, supremacy and control over any other, whether in terms of economy, maritime transport, defense-security, or foreign affairs.

Therefore, China still harbours the ambition to turn the South China Sea into its “home pond”, which forces the US, the world’s leading power, to engage itself more with China. In recent years, the “fight” between these two powers over the South China Sea issue has become an increasingly boiling spot in their bilateral relations.

International experts: Vietnam's ASEAN Chairmanship and the South China Sea

ASEAN Chairmanship and the South China SeaWith China and the ASEAN agreeing on a single draft of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), many hope that in 2020, Vietnam, as Chair of ASEAN and the state with largest sovereignty in the South China Sea, would take the opportunity to lead the ASEAN Community towards greater coherence to serve their common interests in the negotiation with China, seeking satisfactory solutions to for the South China Sea issue, and the maintenance of regional peace. However, others also point out the differences among ASEAN countries’ approaches to the South China Sea issue prevents the Community from being a united bloc, thus lessening its voice on the world stage. Therefore, Vietnam, even as ASEAN Chair, might find it difficult to do much for the South China Sea.

Most experts agreed that ASEAN is divided over the South China Sea, hence a big challenge for Vietnam as its Chair to unite these countries to have a unified voice in this matter. Furthermore, there are many other issues facing ASEAN which Vietnam needs to handle and garner for a high consensus among members.

Prof. Carl Thayer, from the Australian Defense Force Academy, pointed out that the first thing Vietnam needs to do upon assuming the position of the ASEAN Chair is finding a solution to improve the ASEAN Secretariat’s and the supporting apparatus’ efficiency. For a long time, the Secretariat seems to hide somewhere without being able to maximize its coordinating role. It is necessary for members to share and cooperate well in order to become unified. If the role of the ASEAN Secretariat is elevated, Vietnam's voice might carry more weight.

China plays the victim in the South China Sea to overturn the truth

China plays the victim in the South China Sea to overturn the truthOn April 3, 2020, during a regular press conference by Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, when asked about the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel following its “encounter” with a Chinese coast guard in the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: "On the early morning of April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, during a routine patrol, spotted a Vietnamese fishing boat illegally fishing in the internal waters off China's Xisha islands and immediately called out to it to leave. The Vietnamese boat refused to leave and suddenly veered sharply towards the Chinese vessel. Despite its best efforts to keep clear, the Coast Guard vessel was struck at the bow. The Vietnamese fishing boat then took in water and sank. The Chinese Coast Guard vessel immediately carried out a rescue operation, and all eight Vietnamese fishermen were rescued without any injuries. The Chinese Coast Guard vessel let the fishermen go after fulfilling necessary investigation and evidence-collection procedures.”

Hua Chunying's comments are essentially blatant fabrications, having been accompanied by China’s absurd claims about their "sovereignty" in the South China Sea in the past.

In truth, at about 3:00 on April 2, 2020, the Quang Ngai fishing vessel number QNg 90617 TS, with 8 crew members onboard, was operating within the waters of the Paracel Islands under Vietnam's sovereignty when it was hit and sunk by a Chinese vessel. Nearby, there were three other Vietnamese fishing vessels, namely the QNg 90929 TS, QNg 90045 TS and QNg 90399 TS who rushed to the sinking vessel’s rescue. The Chinese Coast Guard vessel picked up the QNg 90617 TS crew, then immediately turned to chase the other fishing vessels. The QNg 90929 TS and the QNg 90045 TS were later detained and towed to Woody Island along with all 8 fishermen of the QNg 90617 TS. Around 6:00 pm on April 3, 2020, China transferred the 8 fishermen from QNg 90617 TS to the QNg 90929 TS and the QNg 90045 TS, and then released both the vessels and fishermen.

Beware of China’s recent aggression in the South China Sea

The dangerOn March 5, 2020, many Chinese media outlets simultaneously published a misleading report by the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) at Peking University, China. Accordingly, a total of 311 Vietnamese fishing vessels were said to have invaded China's inland, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in February to spy under the pretense of illegal fishing. Also as reported, most Vietnamese fishing vessels convened near major waterways leading to Chinese naval and air force bases east of Hainan Island and near Guangdong waters. "Some Vietnamese fishing vessels even entered the firing range of Chinese military bases." This report stated that Vietnamese fishing vessels had entered "Chinese waters" in the Gulf of Tonkin and near Hainan Island, jumping to an absurd conclusion that "these vessels only serve two purposes: economic one, which is illegal fishing; and military one, which is reconnaissance and espionage”.

This is totally wrong as back in 2000 Vietnam and China had already signed the Agreement on Delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf, defining a common delimitation line for both countries’ exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. Furthermore, the two sides signed the Vietnam-China Agreement on Fishery Cooperation (effective since 2004), allowing fishing vessels from both sides to operate in a common fishery zone. The scope of the zone is calculated at 30.5 nautical miles spanning both sides from the dividing line, which vessels may cross. The number of vessels is to be determined annually by the two sides. This agreement is valid for 10 years and automatically extended by 5 years.

Propaganda war in the time of Covid-19 epidemic

Propaganda war in the time of Covid-19 epidemicOnce China spread the corona virus around the world and gained initial control of the pandemic at home, Beijing authorities started to launch a disinformation campaign regarding the origin of the said virus. What was strange was that Beijing had mobilized its entire foreign service in this endeavor, stopping at nothing to distribute information of a conspiracy-laden nature.

According to some analysts, the goal of said propaganda campaign is to deny responsibility, libel and direct global hatred towards the US. The campaign was aimed at the US as this was the country with enough power to prevent China’s expansion.

On March 12, 2020, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian commenced this campaign on Twitter by slandering the US military as having brought the corona virus to China, causing a quarrel between the US and China on the issue, which led to the US President calling it the “Chinese virus”.

The latest blow to the US in this campaign came from Paris. In a series of messages on Twitter on March 23, 2020, the Chinese Embassy in France publicly proclaimed that the worldwide havoc-wreaking corona virus actually originated in the US, not from Wuhan (China) as falsely assumed. Such action is considered part of a whole campaign launched by Beijing.

The fallout from Philippine President’s cancellation of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement

The fallout from Philippine Presidents cancellation of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces AgreementDespite being dubbed “US’ non-NATO ally” in Asia, on February 11, 2020, the Western Pacific island nation of the Philippines saw President Rodrigo Duterte “shock” the public by filing the termination of the “Visiting Forces Agreement” (VFA) between the Philippines and the US. Basically, the agreement allows activities such as US-Philippines joint military exercises, training and humanitarian aid within Philippine territory which approximates 300 every year, including visits from US warships. Ratified by Senate of the Philippines in 1998, the VFA came into effect in 1999 as a continuation of the “Mutual Defense Treaty” (MDT) signed in 1951 between the two countries, marking the alliance between the Philippines and the US. Such an unexpected decision from the Philippine leadership had stirred up the public within and without the region, especially those in the Philippines itself.

Firstly, the public is very much interested in President Duterte’s reason for the termination. In this regard, the general consensus is that there are both direct and indirect causes. The root cause remains President Duterte’s implementation of a step-by-step policy to “separate from the US” and “pivot to China” in exchange for economic benefits, which would help realize the “Build, Build, Build” strategy he himself set out.

As things stand, China is a regional power about to realize its dream of becoming a global "superpower”. China does not hide its ambition, but the rise of China has been the cause for concerns for many countries in the region, especially with regard to territorial issues. When it comes to the South China Sea, China has expressed its intention to “monopolize control” of nearly the entire South China Sea area through the unreasonable "nine-dash line" claim. During a 2016 visit to Singapore, a senior Chinese leader boldly stated, “I repeat, the South China Sea has long been China’s”. Despite being a signatory to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982), Beijing has repeatedly shown disregard for international law in its statements and acts of “bullying” in the South China Sea. In 2016, the International Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in favor of Manila on the case brought by the Philippines against China relating to sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea and China blatantly rejected this Ruling. Many ASEAN countries are troubled by China's ambitions and increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea. However, given their weak capabilities, many governments in the region feel the need to develop relations with China to attract Chinese investment. President Duterte’s administration is no exception.

China is using Covid-19 pandemic to step up encroachment in the South China Sea

China is using Covid19 pandemic to step up encroachment in the South China SeaAs experts have warned, once China proclaimed that the Wuhan epidemic outbreak was under control, they would take advantage of the complicated global context, especially those in the US and Europe, to conduct new activities in the South China Sea.

On the ground, Chinese ships continuously travel from Hainan island to seven outposts illegally occupied in Spratly Islands to prove their regular presence in the South China Sea. Not once has China ceased their encroachment, even amidst the novel corona virus outbreak.

Reviewing Vietnam’s ‘Struggle’ Options in the South China Sea

Reviewing VietnamOnce again, Chinese assertiveness against Vietnam in the South China Sea is on the rise. Beginning on April 3, a Chinese coast guard ship sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel in disputed waters off the Paracel Islands, and ten days later, on April 13, Beijing redeployed the controversial Haiyang Dizhi 8 geological survey ship, which it had used last year to harass international drilling near Vanguard Bank, to Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). And on April 18, Beijing announced that it had established administrative control over the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Following this new round of escalating bilateral tensions, Vietnam has publicly protested each Chinese move. But these statements have yet to alter Beijing’s bad behavior. So the question naturally becomes: beyond publicly airing grievances, what else could Vietnam do to curtail Chinese assertiveness in the future?

China’s Chance to Demonstrate Leadership in the South China Sea

Chance to Demonstrate Leadership in the South China SeaChina, in a series of assertive and sometimes risky unilateral actions, has netted some significant gains in the South China Sea in the past decade. The island outposts it has constructed in the Spratly and Paracel Islands are strategic assets in both war and peace. Together with the vast fishing and law enforcement patrols they enable, the outposts provide unprecedented maritime domain awareness capabilities across the South China Sea and serve as a springboard to extend China’s reach even further into Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.

Beijing seems intent on translating this maritime superiority into a de facto victory in the disputes. On the water, its grey zone operations aim to increase the costs of Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine hydrocarbon and fishing operations to the point where they can no longer operate within the nine-dash line, which denotes China’s vast maritime claim. It has simultaneously pushed for a major geopolitical victory within the negotiations on a Code of Conduct with the ASEAN states, where China has tried to gain a veto right over joint military exercises between claimants and countries from outside the region as well as an outright ban on cooperation with extraregional countries on oil and gas.

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