Vietnam and other countries participating East Asian Summit did not mention territorial sea disputes in the South China Sea in the Hanoi Declaration in the context of the ASEAN countries focusing on trade and the COVID-19 pandemic, with the conclusion of the long-awaited largest trade agreement.
The leaders of 10 Southeast Asian countries (ASEAN), of which Vietnam is the rotating chairman, and eight other member states, including the US, Russia, Australia and China, issued a joint statement on November 14 after the summit meeting of the bloc in Hanoi via online platform.
The Hanoi Declaration underlines the commitment between the bloc’s countries to ensure a favorable environment for disease control, in the context of a pandemic coronavirus still raging around the world. In addition to other cooperation, the statement also emphasized the importance of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in enhancing economic cooperation in the region.
The EAS, with ASEAN at its center, is the leading strategic forum in the region, where leaders exchanged important issues affecting peace, security and prosperity in the region, according to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc before speaking at the conference opening.
With 4.6 billion people and a total GDP of more than $51.6 trillion, Mr. Phuc was quoted by the News News saying that the EAS has created a suitable framework for participating countries to share common interests, dialogues on all issues and cooperation in many fields.
Speaking at the meeting on the evening of November 14, the head of the Vietnamese government said that “leaders of countries spend a lot of time talking about the regional and international situation.”
“Countries emphasize the need to ensure a favorable environment for disease control,” said Phuc. “On that basis, countries emphasize the sense of responsibility, at the same time call for restraint, avoid actions that complicate the situation, not militarize, and peacefully settle differences and conflicts on the basis of international law, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the legal framework for all activities at sea.”
According to the Vietnamese Prime Minister, countries recognized the efforts of ASEAN and China to fully and seriously implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and develop a Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC) effective, efficient, consistent with international law, including UNCLOS 1982.
However, in the Hanoi Declaration, the South China Sea disputes, which have been particularly high this year with China’s aggressive activities amid the pandemic, are not mentioned. The statement only states that member states will “enhance practical actions and comprehensive coordination in the priority areas of East Asia Summit cooperation and respond to mutually important challenges.”
Analysts said that the topics of response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-awaited signing of the RCEP agreement “raised people’s moods” at the summit in Hanoi while no one has any new proposals to loosen a maritime dispute after a turbulent year with strong US opposition to Chinese activities at sea.
Vietnam and 14 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, signed on November 15, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), within the framework of an international conference. Hanoi is the host. The RCEP has been backed by China since its inception in 2012 and is seen as a tool for China to increase its geopolitical power in the Asia-Pacific.
“In the midst of this celebrating mood, I don’t think they will do anything to alleviate it with something very harsh in the South China Sea,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore National Institute of National Affairs, told VOA reporter Ralph Jennings.
ASEAN members, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, all have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
China and ASEAN countries are working together to discuss a COC in the South China Sea since 2002, aimed at preventing risks at sea. China stalled negotiations for years but resumed negotiations after losing to the Philippines in its 2016 international arbitration dispute at La Haye.
“I think the COVID crisis will probably make it difficult for (ASEAN countries) to prioritize the COC while they are more concerned about domestic economic recovery and trade resumption, business, travel and everything else,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo, with VOA.
According to researcher Oh, Southeast Asian countries are setting aside maritime disputes this year to wait for US President-elect Joe Biden to give his views on this matter.
President Donald Trump has stepped up U.S. Navy patrols in waters near China’s territorial sea and increased arms sales to surrounding countries as a warning to Beijing. ASEAN members feel protected by Washington but are also worried about a possible conflict between the two superpowers, according to regional scholars.