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ASEAN Leader to Push Consensus on South China Sea Disputes

  • Daniel Schearf

Vietnam's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Luong Minh is seen after the ASEAN flag raising ceremony in Hanoi, August 8, 2012.

Vietnam's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Luong Minh is seen after the ASEAN flag raising ceremony in Hanoi, August 8, 2012.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has appointed its first secretary-general from Vietnam, a one-party communist state and one of four ASEAN members in conflict with China over territory in the South China Sea. ASEAN has struggled over the past year to form a consensus on the issue and having a leader from Vietnam will keep the spotlight on the dispute. But political analysts say Vietnamese leadership will also be more reserved and cautious in seeking agreement on the issue.

Le Luong Minh Tuesday officially takes over the rotating position of ASEAN secretary-general from Thailand's Surin Pitsuwan.

The veteran diplomat comes from Vietnam's Foreign Ministry and served as ambassador to the United Nations.

His leadership of ASEAN, the first by Vietnam, comes at a time of tensions with an increasingly assertive Beijing over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

China claims almost all of the sea, believed to be rich in oil, gas and fish. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims over the waters.

The conflict has led to tense maritime stand-offs, arrests of fishermen, and heated rhetoric over sovereignty.

ASEAN summits this past year in Cambodia failed to negotiate a long-delayed code of conduct to prevent escalation.

Political analysts say China's influence on Cambodia and other non-claimants to the territory was to blame.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University. Speaking via Skype, he says a secretary-general from Vietnam will be more active in pushing for ASEAN consensus on the issue.

"You know, it can also achieve its own national interest if this were to be discussed within ASEAN. And, secondly, you know, Vietnam can claim that it support the ASEAN approach in trying to deal with an issue like this," he says. "You know, in trying to prove that dispute settlement mechanism in ASEAN has been working. So, I think it could be a win-win situation."

Outgoing Thai Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan was well-regarded for his engaging and outspoken leadership in ASEAN.

Political analysts say Vietnamese style will be less public and transparent with its efforts. But, in dealing with China, more subtlety might help.

Beijing is going through a once-every-decade leadership transition until March that observers are watching carefully.

Carl Thayer is professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy. He says a period of quiet diplomacy between ASEAN and China is most likely and most needed.

"This is not a time to go full steam ahead because of Chinese attitudes and the leadership transition… Xi Jinping may be the General Secretary but he's not yet assumed the Presidency…So, between now and then is not to challenge China and entrench it, but to wait out this period and then to see if a new leader and a new team in Beijing can be dealt with by ASEAN," explained Thayer. "So, it's low profile on the South China Sea, not putting it away."

Thayer says China should be reassured by the less public diplomacy style of its neighbor, which should compliment this year's ASEAN chair - the Sultan of Brunei.

Chachavalpongpun says it is in Beijing's interest to tone down the tensions as well.

"You know, China also need ASEAN too in terms of its own economic development. How can China further improve economy, further, how to say, strengthen its economic growth in an environment that is hostile to China itself," he stated. " I think China will need to look into building up or encouraging a more peaceful environment for China's own benefit."

Beijing may also welcome the irony of Vietnam, as a fellow communist one-party state, taking over as secretary of ASEAN.

The Southeast Asian group was formed in 1967 in solidarity against communism but expanded its membership to become a more inclusive regional political and economic body.

ASEAN founders Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have each held the secretary-general post at least twice.

The other ASEAN members are Burma and Laos.

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