Vietnam seeks to curb PRC’s South China Sea actions
Tough negotiations lie ahead over a new pact between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Southeast Asian nations aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea, as Vietnam pushes for provisions likely to prove unpalatable to the PRC, suggest documents reviewed by Reuters.
Hanoi wants the pact to outlaw many of the actions the PRC has carried out across the hotly disputed waterway in recent years, including artificial island building, blockades and offensive weaponry such as missile deployments, according to a negotiating draft of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct (COC) seen by Reuters.
The draft also shows Hanoi is pushing for a ban on any new Air Defense Identification Zone — something the PRC unilaterally announced over the East China Sea in 2013. Chinese officials have not ruled out a similar move, in which all aircraft are supposed to identify themselves to Chinese authorities, over the South China Sea.
Hanoi is also demanding that states clarify their maritime claims in the vital trade route according to international law — an apparent attempt to shatter the controversial “nine-dash line” by which the PRC claims and patrols much of the South China Sea, the draft shows. (Pictured: An aerial view of Southwest Cay, also known as Pugad Island, controlled by Vietnam and part of the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea.)
“Going forward, there will be some very testy exchanges between the Vietnamese and China in particular over the text of this agreement,” said Singapore-based Ian Storey, a veteran South China Sea expert, who has seen the draft.
“Vietnam is including those points or activities that they want forbidden by the Code of Conduct precisely because China has been carrying these out for the last 10 years.”
Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokeswoman at the Vietnam Foreign Ministry, said negotiations on the Code of Conduct had made some progress recently, with Vietnam actively participating and other countries showing “their constructive and cooperative spirit.”
“Vietnam wishes related countries to continue their efforts and make a positive contribution to the negotiation process in order to achieve a substantive and effective COC in accordance with international law, especially the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, contributing to the maintenance of peace, stability and security in the [South China Sea] in particular and in the region in general,” she said.
Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, the chair of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc for 2018, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We cannot comment right now, but Thailand certainly supports discussion on the single negotiating draft,” said Busadee Santipitaks, a spokeswoman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which took over as ASEAN chair on January 1, 2019.
The draft also confirms earlier reports that the PRC wants military drills with outside powers in the South China Sea to be blocked unless all signatories agree.
In addition, the PRC wants to exclude foreign oil firms by limiting joint development deals to China and Southeast Asia. Experts expect both elements to be strongly resisted by some ASEAN countries.
“That is unacceptable,” one Southeast Asian diplomat told Reuters, referring specifically to the suggested ban on military drills with countries outside the region.
In a statement sent to Reuters, China’s Foreign Ministry said negotiations on the code were confidential, and it could not comment on their content.
The next round of working level talks is expected to take place in Burma in the first quarter of 2019, the Southeast Asian diplomat said.