Last update 6/21/2011 8:00:00 AM (GMT+7)

East Sea disputes: Vietnam can’t expect kindness of others
VietNamNet Bridge – “History shows that it is a mistake to expect the strong’s goodness. It is the biggest mistake, which is not allowed to make, in defending national sovereignty. There is no way than saving ourselves by our own”, Dr. Giap Van Duong wrote.

VN condemns Chinese intrusion

Vietnamese fishing boats.

Divided ASEAN

While tension in the East Sea is escalating, the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) – the major forum which is expected to help solve the East Sea disputes in peaceful manner – is facing many burning issues that can cause inner disunity.

The recent two incidents – Binh Minh 02 and Viking II – have stirred up tension in the East Sea. During this time, Thailand and Cambodia were busy with bringing the Preah Vihear Temple dispute to the international court.

Not long ago, Laos’ plan to build the Xayaburi hydro-power dam on the major flow of the Mekong River, with investment from Thailand, caused deep worries of experts and people in the reason for its possible harms to the water resources, the environment and ecological system of the Mekong River.

ASEAN is now divided in many significant issues that directly influence the development, stability and security in Southeast Asia, particularly the East Sea disputes, which is anticipated to become further complicated and a hot spot of the region and the world.

The East Sea disputes occur between China and some member countries of ASEAN, including Vietnam. For that reason, ASEAN is considered a regional forum for solving the disputes peacefully. However, Myanmar – a member of ASEAN – shows its support for China in the East Sea disputes, while some other countries only released general statements because they do not have direct interests in the East Sea.

ASEAN’s unity is being challenged seriously. The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea, signed in 2002 between China and ASEAN, is not very effective. Meanwhile, China, with superior potential in terms of economics and military, is increasing comprehensive pressure in disputes through sending its fishery administration and patrol ships to harass the waters of ASEAN member countries, and using check diplomacy and military assistance in relations with the ASEAN member countries that do not directly involve in the East Sea disputes to control and divide ASEAN.

Save ourselves

What should Vietnam do in this situation? Expecting kindness from China, which makes tensions in the East Sea by claiming up to 80 percent of the East Sea, or saving itself before it becomes too late?

The history shows that it is a mistake to expect the strong’s goodness. It is the biggest mistake, which is not allowed to make, in defending national sovereignty. There is no way than saving ourselves by our own.

But how? There is no way to build up our strength and draw friends, allies and those having the same interests and concerns to our side.

How to build up our strength? There is no way to make unity among the people and win the people’s trust. To make that, leaders have to be good examples, to have firm stuff, great hearts and talents and more importantly, they must place the national interests and the people above all. Because people, on any age, always look at their leaders to behave.

The people must be respected and protected, must be listened to and informed of every important development of the country and they will not be afraid of any sacrifice to defend the country.

In the legal war, research works of the East Sea, which are published on international magazines and newspapers, will be decisive factors. The government, therefore, needs to encourage and assist universities and institutes to conduct research works on the East Sea, to develop the contingent of scientists who research the East Sea in various fields to build legal foundation for solving disputes in the East Sea.

How to draw friends and allies? For ASEAN, due to difference in religion, culture and political institution, member states cannot reach agreements in everything. Vietnam cannot help put an end to the Preah Vihear Temple dispute if Thailand and Cambodia do not want it. Vietnam cannot make decisions for Laos in canceling the Xayaburi project. The most possible thread to link ASEAN countries is the prospect to build a region of security, prosperity and sharing common interests through cooperation.

For the East Sea, the common interest is peace, free navigation and ensuring legal interests of nations under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Among five countries involving in the East Sea disputes with China, four are ASEAN members – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia (including Brunei if the U-shaped line is mentioned).

China’s plot to occupy the entire East Sea, showing through the U-shaped line in its map which was submitted to the UN on May 7 2009, threatens the legal interests of the above five countries. This is one of significant factors to unite ASEAN countries in the struggling against China’s plot to monopolize the East Sea.

Apart from ASEAN, some countries like the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc. , which have direct interests through free navigation in the East Sea, have good reasons to stand on the side of ASEAN against China’s ambitions.

Vietnam needs to highlight these common interests, not only through the government’s activities but also through people-to-people diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, scientific, educational, sports exchange, etc.

Vietnam, as the country that highly suffers from East Sea disputes as well as the exploration of the Mekong River, needs to be more active in uniting ASEAN, first of all for its direct interests and then for peace and stability for the entire region.

In addition, Vietnam needs to make public information accurately and transparently. For example, related to the incident on May 26 2011, initially Vietnam said that this is not the first time China harassed Vietnam’s oil exploration ships, but then it said that this is the first time. It made observers confused and some questioned why Vietnam had not made public the previous incidents, but this incident? A transparent and consistent information policy is essential in defending Vietnam’s sovereignty and legal interests.

In fact ASEAN is being divided. Vietnam needs to be active in implementing people-to-people diplomatic strategy in parallel with strengthening government diplomacy.

In other words, the Vietnamese government and each Vietnamese need to take initiatives in uniting ASEAN to defend their legal interests and to maintain peace and security in the region.

Dr. Giap Van Duong
(The author thanks Le Vinh Truong, Pham Thu Xuan, Du Van Toan and Nguyen Duc Hung for contributing their ideas to this article)