Vietnam's turn this year as chair of Southeast Asian nations' bloc gives it a new outlet to resist China in a festering maritime sovereignty dispute that involves three other member countries as well.
Hanoi will take over as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian nations January 1 and hold that position for a year before rotating it to another of the bloc's 10 members. Chairs of the group better known as ASEAN can set the agenda each year and spearhead initiatives for the full bloc's review.
As chair, Vietnam is expected to place the maritime dispute high on the agendas for ASEAN's foreign ministers meeting in mid-year, the leadership summit in November and numerous side meetings, Southeast Asia scholars say.
Vietnam is already the most outspoken among Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea, where Beijing has taken a military and technological lead over the past decade.
"They can bring out the agenda for the year or they can bring out the issues for other ASEAN members to talk about or they can propose the initiatives for the organization, so I think that Vietnam can take advantage of that," said Trung Thanh Nguyen, Center for International Studies director at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
"They will talk more about the South China Sea in every multilateral meeting in ASEAN," Nguyen said.
China claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, which is prized for fisheries, marine shipping lanes and fossil fuel reserves.
Vietnam's power as ASEAN chair
Vietnam can decide what the whole bloc considers as priorities, from the maritime dispute to regional trade and counterterrorism work. The lead country also issues a statement at the leadership summit and may propose a theme such as the "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability" motto that Thailand used as chair in 2019.
ASEAN formally advocates "peace, security and stability" without calling for any particular solution to the sovereignty disputes.
"It is especially significant for Vietnam because the chairmanship will offer a unique opportunity to engage the region to take constructive action on the South China Sea disputes which have long threatened regional peace and security," the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of an American think tank, said
Code of conduct
China agreed in 2017 with ASEAN to reopen talks on a long-stalled code of conduct aimed at preventing accidents at sea. Questions about who would enforce it, and how, still vex negotiators in Beijing.
"I will assume that Beijing will be concerned that Vietnam, as the ASEAN chair, might potentially be able to sort of put obstacles in front of the COC (code of conduct) process said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Vietnam will try first to build "solidarity" among ASEAN countries for any move that would offend China, Nguyen said.
Ultimately, he said, Vietnam will feel "comfortable" doing joint maritime patrols with Japan or the United States, he said. Beijing resents those would-be partners when they send ships to the South China Sea.
History of dispute with China
Clashes between vessels from Vietnam and China killed people aboard in 1974 and 1988. In the 1970s China took control of the sea's Paracel Islands, which Vietnam also claims. Five years ago, boats from the two sides rammed each other over the placement of an offshore Chinese oil rig.
From July through October this year, a Chinese survey ship sent to waters where Vietnam is looking for oil and gas sparked another standoff. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim parts of the sea contested by China too but accept crucial trade and investment aid from Beijing.
Pro-China support in Southeast Asia
Pro-China members of ASEAN members would probably stop any virulent anti-China language from appearing in resolutions or statements from the association this year, said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus with the University of New South Wales in Australia. Cambodia and Laos are among those members.
Chinese investors are developing infrastructure such as roads and airports in Cambodia. Beijing had invested about $2 billion in infrastructure there as of 2018. In Laos, Chinese funding supports a high-speed railway due for completion by 2021.
"It's not in Vietnam's interest to abandon or be cynical about ASEAN," Thayer said. "It's to use it to the effect that they can but understand that it has limitations."
Beijing will try to get along with Vietnam through its term as chair, he said. China will press in 2020 for the code of conduct to guard against later introduction of difficult terms, Thayer forecast.
China withdrew its survey ship from waters near Vietnam this year to get along better, Koh said. Its concern about the chairmanship was a reason, he said.