ASEAN Needs Unity and Solidarity

in Dealing with China: Dr. Thayer


The territorial disputes in the South China Sea - the East Sea as called by Vietnamese – remain after the ASEAN Summits in 2010. As Chinese President Hu, Jintao is wrapping up his four-day visit to the United States, Nha-Tran H. Nguyen, Media and Communications Director of Nguyen Thai Hoc Foundation, conducts an interview in regards to the East Sea issue with Dr. Carle A. Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at Australia's Defense Force Academy.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: What changes have you noticed lately in China's attitude, if any, toward the territorial disputes in the South China Sea /East Sea?

Dr. Thayer: The most important change in China’s attitude on the East Sea issue came following Secretary Clinton’s intervention at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting last year. Once she indicated that the United States had an interest in facilitating a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, China moved quickly to revive the moribund ASEAN-China Joint Working Group to implement the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It has now been revealed that Vietnam and China held four secret meetings last year to discuss the East Asia. China made clear that the Paracel Islands were not on the table for discussions.


Both sides are trying to work out the principles to guide their discussions on maritime issues. Progress may be possible on waters that form the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. But there are no signs of any positive movement by China on other East Sea issues.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: Any changes in the political – diplomatic relations between the Southeast Asian countries, China and United States in regards to the East Sea issue?

Dr. Thayer: Secretary Clinton’s intervention was in response to regional concerns about Chinese assertiveness. China countered by applying diplomatic pressure on individual ASEAN states in order to prevent a consensus from developing on how to deal with China on maritime issues.


Chinese pressures succeeded and ASEAN members insisted that any reference to the South China Sea be dropped from the joint statement issued after the 2nd ASEAN-US leaders summit in New York hosted by President Obama. Clearly the South China Sea will recede in relative importance because Vietnam is no longer chair of ASEAN. Most recently Indonesia has expressed concern that US and Japanese intervention on the South China Sea may complicate ASEAN discussions with China.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) recently distributed a territory law that declares sovereignty over domains ruled by China back to hundred of years ago. Should this be a concern for these countries?

Dr. Thayer: This is yet another example of China’s tactic of “dropping water on stone”. China’s assertion of claims of this nature are designed to wear down their opponents. This represents nothing new because China has made such historical claims before. Indeed, China’s claims to the South China Sea are not based on international law but China’s own interpretation of history.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: Being afraid to upset China, an important trade counterpart, some countries in the Asia-Pacific region have tried not to involve in the East Sea territorial disputes. What can be done to overcome their fear?

Dr. Thayer: Three Southeast Asian countries did not support Vietnam last year when it pushed in ASEAN circles for consensus on the East Sea. These countries were Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand. These are three different countries. China’s pressures could be overcome by offering alternatives.

Cambodia needs access to the US market to sell its textiles and garments. The US could put pressure on Cambodia to change its position on the South China Sea but is unlikely to do so. The US has no means to pressure Myanmar. Thailand is supposedly a major non-NATO ally of the United States. But its highly volatile domestic politics mitigate against taking a stand on the South China Sea at odds with China. ASEAN itself needs to demonstrate to its members that unity and solidarity on the South China Sea is one component of a larger need to work together as a unit in dealing with China. But ASEAN remains consensus driven and does not force members to take stands that they are uncomfortable with.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: The US now welcomes VN to participate in its maritime exercises like the CARAT at any time. Does it seem like Washington is trying to strengthen the US-VN alliance by all means, and would this put any pressure to Peking at all?

Dr. Thayer: The United States would like to develop increased defense ties – as distinct from an alliance - with Vietnam so as to be able to influence Hanoi on a variety of regional security issues, including China.

But defense relations are still in the confidence and trust building stages. The US has made clear, for example, that the sale of military equipment is related to an improvement in Vietnam’s human rights situation. So there are self-imposed limitations on the US side. Vietnam will not allow itself to be used in any US strategy to contain China. Vietnam seeks to play off both powers. It fears their collusion will be at Vietnam’s expense.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: ASEAN Foreign Ministers and their Chinese counterpart are going to meet by the end of January 2011 to discuss a rather-necessary common law based on the DOC which signed in 2002. Do you think they would be able to reach an agreement?

Dr. Thayer: The ASEAN-China Joint Working Group may be able to make some progress in moving forward on implementing some of the confidence building measures in the DOC.

But ASEAN guidelines call for them to meet and form a consensus prior to meeting with China. China objects to this and wants to be able to negotiate bilaterally. Friction over this point may slow progress on implementing the DOC. The DOC is just an initial step towards a more legally binding Code of Conduct. There is some expectation that there will be some progress in order to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the DOC in 2012. As long as Vietnam insists on including the Paracel Islands and as long as China refuses, there will be little progress on a Code of Conduct. The best that can be hoped for are small, incremental and mainly symbolic steps at implementing the DOC’s confidence building measures.

Nha-Tran Nguyen: Thank you Dr. Thayer for this interview.


Jan 24, 2011


Image (courtersy of Dr. Thayer): Dr. Thayer


@Nguyễn Thái Học Foundation