July 19, 2018, 3:59 am
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Vietnam shows the way

AMONG the ten countries that compose the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), four of them have competing claims over certain territories in the South China Sea against China. Only Vietnam stood up to press its claim in strong and unequivocal words. 

This occurred Friday night during the initial meeting of the 10 Asean foreign ministers/secretaries, before the formal Asean Regional Forum today, at the end of which they are expected to pass another communiqué on any consensus reached about the approved agenda.

Vietnam lobbied for Asean to express “serious concern” over China’s feverish construction of artificial islands and structures in the disputed waters.

The Vietnamese delegation also wanted Asean to insist in the forthcoming communiqué that the planned Code of Conduct in the South China Sea among claimant-nations be legally binding. Beijing has opposed this suggestion over the years.

Vietnam’s hardline position on China’s perceived encroachment in its water territory is relevant in top-level discussions among Asean foreign ministers or even heads of state. The Philippines is in a unique situation on this issue because of its victory over China in a United Nations arbitral court landmark case. 

The Philippines won its case before the international tribunal in July last year, establishing that Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea has no legal basis.

This strengthened the Philippine position of exclusive rights over specific areas in that sea, which it even renamed as West Philippine Sea. The entry of President Duterte into the picture, with his obvious pro-China sentiment called “independent foreign policy” and his avowed desire to distance himself from the US, doused cold water on Vietnam’s hope that there could be a strong, united diplomatic subgroup within Asean to pressure China to toe the line.

But alas, the line that China recognizes and likes to stand on is its nine-dash-line, an imaginary, historical boundary that considers almost the entire sea as its own.

Critics of President Duterte are cheering the Vietnamese and expressing support for their tenacity and courage to challenge China in this regard.

They could not help but compare the Duterte administration’s policy to that of Vietnam, which like the Philippines is a small country compared to China, and without even a military cooperation treaty with the United States, but is strong enough to fight for its rights.

About the South China Sea, Duterte and his foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano have reiterated that the nation won’t be ceding any territory that it owns.

Let us see how they flesh out these words and assurances by concrete action.
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