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11th South China Sea International Conference opens in Hanoi

11th South China Sea International Conference opens in Hanoi


Concerns increasing over growing tensions, violations of sovereignty, and threats to use force in the East Sea, two-day conference hears.

The 11th South China Sea International Conference opened in Hanoi on November 6, with the theme “Cooperation for Regional Security and Development”.

Co-hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV), the Foundation for East Sea Studies (FESS), and the Vietnam Lawyers Association (VLA), the two-day conference brought together more than 50 speakers and some 250 officials, scholars and diplomats of Vietnam and foreign countries, according to a report from the Vietnam News Agency (VNA).

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Hoai Trung was quoted by VNA as telling the opening ceremony that the East Sea (as the South China Sea is known in Vietnam) is one of the most important and busiest shipping lanes in the world. As a bridge connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as well as Asia and Oceania, over 50 per cent of the world’s maritime trade, worth $5 trillion each year, is transported through the East Sea, so security and safety of navigation in the waters are of great importance to global trade and prosperity.

The East Sea also plays an important role in strategic initiatives of world powers such as the US, China, Japan, Australia, India, and ASEAN, Deputy Minister Trung went on, adding that all developments in the East Sea have attracted attention not only from regional nations but also the international community.

He highlighted the importance of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), describing it as the UN’s “Charter on Oceans” and with 168 signatories. The 1982 UNCLOS created a legal framework for the preservation and sustainable use of oceans and marine resources as recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by UN member states in 2015.

Based on the 1982 UNCLOS, many practical cooperation activities at the regional and global levels have been carried out to cope with common challenges such as climate change, rising sea levels, declining aquatic resources, and plastic waste, as well as other challenges like security and safety of navigation and aviation, piracy, and armed crime.

The 1982 UNCLOS is also a leading foundation for the settlement of claims on overlapping sea areas and the demarcation of seas among countries, he emphasized.

Vietnam, Canada, and the EU will co-organize a workshop on the enforcement of the 1982 UNCLOS and emerging marine issues within the framework of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi next week, he told the gathering.

He expressed his belief that maintaining peace and stability and promoting cooperation in the East Sea are not only in the interest of and the responsibility of regional nations but also of the entire international community.

He expects that the conference would put forth measures to ensure the efficiency of the 1982 UNCLOS and respect for law; to maintain the important role of multilateral mechanisms such as the UN and ASEAN in fostering regional cooperation; and to step up international cooperation in dealing with urgent issues at sea, including disputes over sovereignty and sovereign rights, and ensuring livelihoods for coastal residents.

VLA President Nguyen Van Quyen, as quoted by the news agency, said that the conference was a chance for domestic and foreign lawyers to share measures to maintain peace and security in the region. The VLA has an increasingly significant voice in security matters, including the East Sea issue, he said.

Meanwhile, DAV President Nguyen Vu Tung, also as quoted by VNA, said that since it was initiated ten years ago, this international conference has become an important event on the East Sea, where experts and scholars who are interested in maritime security and the East Sea in particular share information and ideas. After ten holdings, the conference has received more than 350 reports from leading experts and scholars and welcomed over 2,000 delegates, he said.

Though cooperation for development remains a common trend between ASEAN and its partners, there are concerns over growing tensions, violations of sovereignty, and threats to use force in the East Sea, Mr. Tung stressed.

Leading foreign experts also voiced their concerns over China’s recent actions in the East Sea, VNA reported.

Addressing the first plenary session entitled “South China Sea State of Affairs: Threats, Risks and Opportunities”, Mr. Greg Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the US-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, said the most important development in the East Sea over the last year has been the growth in the number of China Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels China has deployed to the Spratly Islands, according to the news agency.

It quoted Mr. Poling as saying that these ships are now continuously patrolling every part of the “nine dash line” and are becoming more aggressive in harassing Southeast Asian states’ normal activities, including oil and gas work, fishing, and resupply of their outposts.

“If the situation continues, it will soon be too risky for regional actors to engage in any normal activity without Chinese participation,” he stressed.

During the session, delegates identified threats, risks, and opportunities in the East Sea in relation to regional peace and stability. They also assessed the past year’s behavior and activities of all parties concerned and how they will affect inter-state relations and the strategic seascape in the waterway.

Dr. Nicola Casarini from the Istituto Affari Internazionali of Italy, also quoted by VNA, told the second plenary session on “The South China Sea in Competing Visions” that Beijing continues to challenge the rules-based order in the area by building artificial islands with military facilities and weapons systems, drilling for oil and gas, and chasing off its Southeast Asian neighbors’ fishing vessels from waters where they have the right to fish in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS.

The EU is scaling up its security engagement in and with Asia, in line with the EU’s global strategic objective of supporting a rules-based international order, Mr. Casarini told the gathering.

According to the State-run news agency, in the second plenary session participants examined the importance of the East Sea in major players’ grand strategies or regional visions as a way of mapping out how the East Sea is connected with their security and economic prosperity. They also mapped out the differences and similarities in the major players’ interests in and approaches to the East Sea to better understand the nature of their cooperation and competition over the relevant issues at this moment and the time to come.

Panelists were requested to examine the East Sea from the perspectives of their countries’ policies and strategies, either the Belt and Road Initiative or the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, or their respective regional policies.

Dr. Ekaterina Koldunova, Deputy Dean at the School of Political Affairs and Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies at the MGIMO-University of Russia, as quoted by VNA, said the region has witnessed not only memories of great power rivalry but also a contest between regional and trans-regional visions and competition among projects at the nexus of economics, politics, security, and infrastructure development.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has had multiple unintended results as more and more countries begin to speculate what it really means to be included or not included in the BRI, she said.

The annual conference included six plenary and six roundtable sessions, focusing on various themes such as the state of affairs in the East Sea regarding threats, risks, and opportunities; the East Sea in competing visions; the East Sea in multilateral forums; incident prevention and confidence building; and strengthening foundations for peace and rules-based order.

As part of the conference, a special session will be held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the 1982 UNCLOS, which has been the bedrock of the rules-based order at sea for the past 25 years.

Linh Chi, Vietnam Economic Times