Vietnam leads UNCLOS discussion

Vietnam leads UNCLOS discussion

Top Stories | Sep 19, 2020
Tom Abke

Vietnam is enjoying rare leadership opportunities in 2020 that allow it to highlight the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) unlawful aggression in the South China Sea.

Vietnam holds the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the temporary presidency of the United Nations Security Council. The roles enable the Southeast Asian nation to shine a global spotlight on the PRC’s encroachment into its territorial waters and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which outlines a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas by establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is also foreign minister, expressed concerns during virtual meetings among foreign ministers in early September 2020 over what he called “complex developments and serious incidents” in the South China Sea, which Hanoi calls the East Sea.

The incidents “have gone contrary to international law and the UNCLOS, violated the legitimate rights and interests of littoral countries, intensified tensions and undermined peace and security in the East Sea,” a Hanoi statement said.

Dr. Frederick Kliem, visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told FORUM that Vietnam has pressing interests in reining in Beijing’s violations of territorial sovereignty. The PRC’s encroachment into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone has cost Vietnam an estimated U.S. $1 billion in canceled oil and gas exploration contracts.

In ASEAN meetings, Hanoi framed the PRC’s territorial claims as a security threat. At United Nations Security Council meetings, Vietnam declared them violations of international law. With these pulpits, Vietnam rallied support for its cause at an ASEAN summit in June 2020.

“ASEAN has adopted a very different language this time, which is a lot stronger language, directly naming China and directly pointing out that ASEAN rejects the Chinese claims,” Kliem said, referring to the ASEAN statement on the South China Sea adopted at the summit.

While the permanent seats held by China and Russia on the U.N. Security Council prevent unified action there, Vietnam can at least work for “some sort of global buy-in on the global scene,” Kliem said. Vietnam has raised the PRC’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea in about 25 Security Council meetings within the context of the “the importance of international law generally for international relations,” he said.

The PRC’s territorial claims in the South China Sea based on its nine-dash demarcation line violate the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, an independent arbitration tribunal ruled in July 2016. The PRC claims nearly all of the South China Sea. The PRC has constructed military outposts on artificial islands on rocks and reefs in the sea, bullied fishing fleets of neighboring countries with its maritime militia and conducted what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described in September 2020 as unlawful energy surveillance on its neighbors.

Hanoi’s efforts to curb the PRC’s behavior parallel a rise in regional support for freedom of navigation naval exercises led by the United States, Kliem said. (Pictured: Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, right, receives the Association of Southeast Asian Nations president’s gavel from Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in November 2019.)

“This is quite important,” Kliem said of the naval exercises, “and I think that Vietnam has really managed to bring the South China Sea onto the Security Council agenda and do what they can, which is getting awareness of the importance of international law in the maritime domain.”

Hanoi’s efforts are leading up to what promises to be a showdown at November’s East Asia Summit, which Vietnam will host. The summit will involve leaders of all 10 ASEAN governments as well as representatives of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.

“This is basically the highest echelon of multilateralism and multilateral security in this region,” Kliem said.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.