VietNamNet Bridge – Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Le Hoai Trung speaks to the press about the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in resolving the simmering East Sea (South China Sea) dispute.
How is ASEAN handling the East Sea dispute so far, in your opinion?
ASEAN has reached a consensus on the East Sea dispute, one of which is that maintaining peace, stability and co-operation in the East Sea plays a key and inseparable role for peace, stability and co-operation in the whole Southeast Asia region.
The East Sea, therefore, is in the mutual interests of all ASEAN member nations and even of the international community, judging from its geographical strategic location for global transportation, the economy and security, both for countries inside and outside the region.
As a matter of fact, the East Sea is deemed by governments, researchers and the media as one of the places most significantly at risk of conflict, as there have been tensions concerning the international community.
And the second consensus of ASEAN regarding the principle to resolve the East Sea dispute is that all countries have to abide by international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. Particularly, parties must not resort to threat or use of force, but only dialogues and other peaceful means to resolve their disputes.
ASEAN and China have to effectively follow the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), of which there are three key contents. Item number four is about peaceful dispute resolution principles, while numbers five and six, respectively, are about exercising self-restraint to avoid the escalation of disputes and further co-operation towards establishing a Code of Conduct (COC) in the East Sea.
ASEAN’s task is determining how to bring about measures that both ASEAN and China can carry out together to more effectively implement the DOC. The DOC is just a non-binding principle and ASEAN wants to negotiate with China to reach the COC, which is legally binding between signed parties. That would help to further sustain peace, stability and co-operation in the East Sea.
Has the work on the COC achieved any practical progress so far?
ASEAN nations really want to advance to the next stage of negotiations, but unfortunately, the COC so far is still at the consultation level.
The countries have exchanged their views on the new elements of a potential COC since last year, but ASEAN countries and Viet Nam in particular are hoping that all parties can further discuss a framework for the COC.
We also want to have a specific schedule – for example, trying to set the targets of what we can achieve in 2017 and a detailed working agenda on the COC. The exchange of views is a good start, but ASEAN is looking forward to taking one step closer to the COC.
Some ASEAN countries have expressed thoughts different to the rest of ASEAN regarding the East Sea dispute. Are such differences challenging the solidarity of ASEAN?
I have to state again that ASEAN considers the East Sea dispute a matter of common interest and agreed to find a peaceful solution to the dispute and to strengthen co-operation via a variety of forums and mechanisms in diplomacy, defence and maritime law enforcement co-operation, as well as the DOC and the COC.
However, it is true that some differences remain. ASEAN is an intergovernmental organisation and its members joined on a voluntary basis for the sake of their national interests. It is understandable that a country only participated in ASEAN when its interests matched those of the organisation. Yet when it became a member, it also agreed to uphold a common cause. This is not applied to ASEAN only, but to any other international organisation.
We should be reminded of how confrontations in Southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s have badly damaged the countries involved. ASEAN now is actually an opportunity to prevent such kind of tensions and conflicts from being repeated again.
A united and strong ASEAN is in the long-term interests of its partners. ASEAN is an element to promote regional peace, stability and co-operation, which will consequently be weakened if that element is undermined.
But ASEAN is also alike other international organisations like the United Nations or the European Union in terms of how its outside partners always want to pressure them when it comes to their interests and issues they care about.
If ASEAN is divided during this difficult period, some members will have to choose other partners.
The solidarity of ASEAN is what helps promote the position of each member country, and allows them to be more independent and have their own voice on issues with less dependence on the outside. A weakened ASEAN will force some members to seek new partners because they can’t rely on ASEAN for what it has initially brought to them any longer. The differences between the members will increase and there will be more risks of tensions and confrontations in the region.
ASEAN’s consensus principle is even more needed during times of differences because all member countries will get to discuss as a group rather than just in bilateral meetings.
But the bottom line here is that ASEAN members should have a long-term vision to see that a strong ASEAN is in their own interests.
As one ASEAN foreign minister said, we will all have to pay for what was not done right.