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The responsibility and role of ASEAN and related parties in solving disputes over the East Sea

(LLCT) - ASEAN’s primary purpose is to create a peaceful environment in Southeast Asia and help member countries maintain independence, unity and territorial sovereignty, leading them toward prosperity and development. Therefore, settling territorial disputes to prevent conflict in the East Sea is ASEAN’s right and responsibility. 

1. Responsibility of related parties in solving disputes over the East Sea

Many parties play an important role in solving territorial disputes over the East Sea. Each of these parties must maintain a positive attitude throughout the process and avoid escalating tension and threatening violence. They must use peaceful measures based upon international laws, including UNCLOS in 1982, to respect DOC and to build COC together(1).

The first involved party is China, the country with the most ambitious territorial claims. China’s claims and the methods it has used to recognize these methods so far are the primary threats to peace and stability within the region, and could actually pose a threat to China itself. China’s territorial claims and the efforts to realize these claims are seriously impacting the world image of China(2).  Although China has been trying to claim its strategy of “peaceful rise”, its irrational territory claims and the methods it is using in an attempt to realize these claims are causing suspicion among countries inside and outside the region. China itself will suffer the most if territorial disputes continue to escalate. If the East Sea conflict occurs, the Southward door of China will be blocked, and it will be unable to become a world nautical power. Therefore, if China wants to continue to grow its power, restraining its actions on the East Sea is the key solution.

The most crucial factor for the other parties involved in the disputes - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan - is continuing to promote national development amidst complicated sovereignty issues.However, if all parties are determined to uphold their territorial claims and use whatever means available to enforce these claims, the territorial disputes will not be settled in a peaceful manner. If conflict breaks out, small countries will suffer heavy political and economic damage, both in manpower and in material resources. Therefore, all disputing parties must restrain any action that may escalate tension in order to preserve their own national sovereignty and benefits. This does not mean surrendering national sovereignty in the East Sea.

No nation throughout global history has received external help without some kind of exchange. No nation helps another without considering its own national benefits. Therefore, in order to settle disputes in the East Sea, all related parties must actively look for appropriate bilateral and multilateral solutions, especially building trust among parties. Currently, China has already lost out on this opportunity by failing to uphold its agreements. China has, for example, carried out serial action to escalate tension in the region, brought armed forces to fight for control over the Scarborough/Hoang Nham sandbar in the disputed area with the Philippines; brought executive forces to Co May/Truong Sa (Spratly islands) and prevented the Philippines from replacing troops or supplying provisions to their forces; lowered milestones and conducted military exercises in the Giemmo (Tang Mau sandbar), 80 nautical miles off Malaysian coast; installed the Haiyang 981 drilling rig and 100 ships, trespassing Vietnam’s EEZ 119 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam’s Ly Son Island; transgressed sea area; and extended infrastructure construction in illegally occupied sandbars on the Truong Sa and Hoang Sa (Spratly and Paracel) archipelagos. These actions have escalated and complicated the disputes in the East Sea by going against China’s international commitments including DOC, causing many countries to lose faith in China’s reliability.

China is also suspicious of other countries involved in the disputes over East Sea territory, especially those who have good relations with the United States. In China’s opinion, the USA’s “rotating the axis” strategy in the Asia-Pacific region targets China, and the East Sea is obviously an important link in this strategy. The “rotating the axis” strategy’s primary purpose is to prevent the rise of China, which threatens China’s “peaceful rise” campaign. The United States’ use of deeper and wider interference in the East Sea issues may prevent China from gaining power. American military presence in the East Sea is increasing. The USA’s relationship with countries in the region - particularly those disputing with China - is improving. The US’s actions are raising China’s suspicions and are even causing air and sea “collisions” between the two countries. These include a near collision between a Chinese military ship and an American military ship in the Paracel archipelago in December, 2013(3), and the blocking of a Chinese fighter aircraft by an American reconnaissance aircraft east of Hai Nam island in August, 2014(4).

Therefore, building trust among related parties is of utmost importance, and can contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the region(5).

To build trust, related parties must:

(1) Preserve the status quo and refrain from complicating the situation in disputed areas or so-called disputed areas. This is the first step toward building trust. China’s recent actions of altering and building infrastructure in territorially disputed areas - especially the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos - have raised suspicion and created difficulty in settling the disputes. Therefore, all related parties must restrain themselves and hold the status quo to avoid complicating the situation even further.

(2) Take responsibility for signed international commitments. Countries involved in the disputes in the East Sea all take part in one or more international commitments, such as UNCLOS in 1982, DOC, and other bilateral and multilateral agreements. The conscious and responsible implementation of these agreements will help calm down territorial disputes in the East Sea , helping determine positive solutions. However, this requires the awareness and responsibility of all related parties. Without participants’ goodwill, any related party can take advantage of the generality to defend their contentious actions or blame others. The Scarborough and Haiyang 981 drilling rig scenarios are examples of this.

(3) Publicize all activities and their purposes in disputed areas or so-called disputed areas. This will help build trust among countries, as sovereignty is an essential issue for any country or territory and cannot be handled casually. Therefore, related parties should closely supervise all activities and their purposes in disputed areas, and require all involved countries to publicize their actions(6).

(4) Exchange clear and honest ideas to seek solutions.

(5) Form a group of representatives of involved countries to exchange ideas and look for solutions to the disputes. These solutions should be based on each dispute’s specific circumstances. For example, the dispute in the Paracel archipelago is bilateral - involving Vietnam and China - so these two countries should form a group to focus on the issue in this area. The same mechanism should be formed among related parties concerning in the Spratly archipelago. These working groups are responsible for researching and proposing suitable solutions that build trust and manage disputes.

2. The role of ASEAN

- It is the responsibilities and interest of ASEAN member countries to take part in settling disputes in the East Sea.

The East Sea is located in the centre of Southeast Asia. Eight of the ten countries in ASEAN - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia - border the sea and benefit enormously from it. The remaining two countries - Myanmar and Laos - also benefit from the sea even though they do not touch it. Conflict and insecurity in the region will not only have a negative effect on countries directly involved in the dispute, but also on other ASEAN countries. Conflict will jeopardize the conditions for ASEAN’s cooperation and development. ASEAN’s primary purpose is to create a peaceful environment in Southeast Asia and help member countries maintain independence, unity and territorial sovereignty, leading them toward prosperity and development. Therefore, settling territorial disputes to prevent conflict in the East Sea is ASEAN’s right and responsibility.

- ASEAN has greatly contributed in restraining conflict in the East Sea.

ASEAN is the only organization so far who has taken measures to prevent conflict over territory in the East Sea. The issues have become a part of many ASEAN agendas and have been the focus of many announcements and conferences. ASEAN and China have built and signed DOC to affirm the importance of settling the disputes in the East Sea peacefully. Despite some limitations, the birth of DOC is a historical sign marking ASEAN’s role in limiting and settling potential conflict in the East Sea, and in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

After China installed the Haiyang 981 drilling rig, trespassing EEZ and Vietnam’s continental shelf, ASEAN’s role was promoted. Issues in the area continued to be included in the AMM-47 common announcement (August 2014) which encourages avoiding violence and using peaceful measures, communication, and suitable negotiations that align with international laws, including UNCLOS 1982. This requires enforcing a formal code of conduct that can prevent escalating conflict (8).To continue to promote ASEAN’s role, however, member countries must associate their benefits with the general benefits of the bloc and region, and recognize the negative effects that a lack of supervision can cause. ASEAN’s solidarity and unity including the peace and stability in the East Sea region is the foundation to promoting the development and prosperity of the region as a whole.

To promote ASEAN’s role in settling territorial disputes in the East Sea, it is necessary to consider the following solutions:

(1) To raise awareness, ASEAN members must recognize that it is their responsibility to help settle disputes in the East Sea. There are undeniable benefits to avoiding conflict, which can affect regional peace and stability. ASEAN’s active participation in settling disputes is the best way for ASEAN to promote its role in the region.

(2) Improve the level and scale of integration and promote the benefits of settling regional issues, particularly the disputes in the East Sea.

(3) Speed up the implementation of COC; make it clearer, more practical, more suitable to international laws, and more legally binding and beneficial. In case ASEAN cannot reach an agreement with China, ASEAN should formulate their own Code of Conduct (COC) to consolidate a strong message condemning China’s unilateral actions in the East Sea.

(4) Formulating a binding document would make it possible to require the president of ASEAN to include the East Sea disputes into the formal annual agenda of ASEAN.

(5) Increase discussion about the territory issues through track 1.5 or track 2. Organize more international conferences to raise ASEAN’s voice about these issues by raising awareness, creating bonds between countries, and exchanging experiences that increase transparency and predictability of each country’s choice of policies. Propose policies and initiatives to discuss at official ASEAN conferences.

In conclusion, promoting ASEAN’s role in settling territorial disputes is one of the most effective methods to releasing tension, managing conflict, and settling disputes in the East Sea.


(1) Nguyen Tan Dzung: “Continuing active and responsible contribution maintaining peace, security and stability in Southeast Asia and the world”, Communist Magazine, vol. 865, 2014.

(2) Vietnamese News Agency: “Diplomatic policies and conflict management in the East Sea”, Special References, vol. 098, 2015.

(3) China raises voices about the near crash with American ship in the East Sea, http://petrotimes.vn.

(4) Chinese war fighter exposed in front of American plane, http://vnexpress.net.

(5) Sam Bateman: Methods to build trust and security in the Asia-Pacific Ocean and the Law of the Sea; Strategic position - the issues in the sea and the Law of the Sea in Asia-Pacific region, Institute of Information and Social Sciences Publisher, Hanoi, 2005, p.187.

(6) Contribution to assert Vietnamese legal sovereignty in the East Sea, http://dangcongsan.vn.

(7) The method of building trust via international arbitrator and courts, http://www.biendong.net.

(8) Joint communiqué AMM-47: Emphasize the nature of the East Sea issues, http://www.nhandan.com.vn.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Nguyen Thi Que

Institute of International Relations

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

MA. Bui Duc An

General Department 2, Ministry of National Defence 

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