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Wednesday, 05 July 2017 16:39
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How the East Sea issue has shaped the formation and development of ASEAN

(LLCT) - Located in a strategic position linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, the East Sea has become a vital sea route where almost all international sea routes interact. Throughout history, conflict has surrounded the East Sea. The area is becoming increasingly dangerous and complicated, especially due to China’s ambition, which exists not only in its declarations but also in its actions, such as increasing its national defence spending in the region, and transforming islands and reefs into military bases in Vietnam’s Spartly archipelago regardless the laws and world opinion.

1. The East Sea issue in recent years

Located in a strategic position linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, the East Sea has become a vital sea route where almost all international sea routes interact. According to economists, the amount of goods transported via the East Sea will increase dramatically in the twenty-first century. The East Sea also contains abundant and diverse natural resources, including great oil and seafood reserves. These factors offer economic benefits and development opportunities but also create complications for the region, especially concerning the conflict over Paracel and Spartly islands sovereignty, the sea border and the continental shelf. This conflict is negatively impacting the peace and security of the region.

Throughout history, conflict has surrounded the East Sea. The area is becoming increasingly dangerous and complicated, especially due to China’s ambition, which exists not only in its declarations but also in its actions, such as increasing its national defence spending in the region, and transforming islands and reefs into military bases in Vietnam’s Spartly archipelago regardless the laws and world opinion.

Some of the confrontations in the East Sea in recent years: March 2009, USSA patrol ship USNS Impeccable and a Chinese ship conflicted 75 sea miles from Hainam island; March 2011, two Chinese patrol ships threatened a Filipino survey ship in the disputed area, forcing the Philippines to cease the survey and send two military aircraft in; China cut the cables of  Vietnamese ship Binh Minh 2 (May 2011) and Viking 2 (June 2011) within 200 sea miles of Vietnamese sea territory; April 2012, confrontation arose between Chinese and Filipino ships in the Scarborough sandbar; May 2011, Hai Duong 981 illegally launched a drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf; June 2016, a Chinese fishing ship collided with an Indonesian navy ship near Natuna archipelago to the Northwest of Borneo in the East Sea.

In addition to conflicts over rights and sovereignty, piracy and transnational crime tend to increase dramatically in the East Sea. Pirates are armed with modern weapons and have become more daring. Illegal transportation of weapons of mass destruction has increased since the terrorist attack on September 11th in the United States. Illegal fishing creates conflicts among fishermen. All of these issues have negatively affected the relationship of the countries involved.

Concerned countries have cooperated to deal with piracy and transnational crime in the East Sea. Several bilateral and multilateral agreements have been signed and implemented since 1992. In October 2003, ASEAN nations committed to strengthening their cooperation in order to build a “security community” to fight pirates, terrorists, and international criminals in the region. ASEAN has also implemented some multilateral agreements such as The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Cooperation in national defence has been promoted via mutual visits and joint manoeuvres. For example, China and Indonesia created a joint manoeuvre named “Sharp Knife 2011” in June 2011; the USA and the Philippines had an 11-day manoeuvre in 2011; and in November 2014, a flight of Vietnam’s missile-guarded HQ-011 Dinh Tien Hoang and HQ-012 Ly Thai To ships visited Indonesia. Moreover, ASEAN has agreed to promote cooperation in marine scientific research, climate change resistance and fishing industry in the future.

2. ASEAN community and the effects of the East Sea conflicts

ASEAN was founded in 1967 with five original members-Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The community admitted Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

At its 9th Summit in October 2003, ASEAN issued a declaration of the establishment of ASEAN community with the ASEAN Security community (ASC), the ASEAN Economic community (AEC), and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) is at aim to promote cooperation in politics, economy, culture and society to create a peaceful, secure and stable community. In January 2007, ASEAN announced its determination to speed up the uniting process within the community with the legal base of ASEAN Charter and agreed to form the ASEAN Community in 2015-five years earlier than the original plan. To this end, in February 2009, ASEAN approved the Roadmap for the establishment of ASEAN Community 2015 and four documents including ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint (APSC); ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint (AEC); ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint (ASCC); and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration period 2009 - 2015 (IAI). As a result, ASEAN Community was officially formed on December 31th, 2015.

ASEAN has made great contributions to the region and the world, and has established its role and position in the international arena. It has contributed many cooperation mechanisms relating to the Summit Conference, Regulation and Community Councils, Ministers, government officials, professionals, and technicians. These mechanisms have greatly contributed to maintaining peace in the region.

Issues relating to the East Sea are usually focused on and put up for debate at forums and conferences in the region, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asian Summit (EAS), the Summit Conference, the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting (AMM), the Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting (ADMM+). ASEAN is striving toward a goal of “making the Community into an organization with deep and wide cooperation between regional governments and with countries outside the community for the benefits of the people”(1). This is based upon three main pillars: the ASEAN Political-Security Community, the ASEAN Economic community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community in order to address the politics, unite the economies, and take responsibility for the society and people. 

ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC)

According to Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter, APSC is operated on the principle of “Respecting the national independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and characteristics of all member countries”. The contents of APSC was approved at the Vientiane Summit Conference 2009 include: (1) Promoting global security related to politics, economy, culture and society but not forming a military community or military alliance; (2) respecting the main principles of ASEAN such as issuing resolutions based upon agreement, respecting national independence and sovereignty, using armed forces is not allowed and solving conflicts peacefully; and (3) using available mechanisms and tools to dignify and promote security and political cooperation among ASEAN member countries, and expanding cooperation with other countries in order to maintain peace and security in the region. APSC aims to bring ASEAN political and security cooperation to a new height and intends to maintain peaceful, equal, and harmonious environment in the region and in the world.

To form APSC, ASEAN set up cooperative mechanisms clearly stating that multilateral cooperation is the best framework in which to solve unconventional security challenges such as salvage and rescue, disaster recovery and cooperation in order to form a community and effectively coordinate a multilateral cooperation mechanism. 

The foundation of ASPC which is closely related to the East Sea conflicts, aims at building a peaceful and secure environment for the development in Southeast Asia by improving ASEAN’s political - security cooperation with outside contributions. APSC is not intended to create a common defense block. In November 2004, the 10th ASEAN Summit in Laos approved the Vientiane Action Programme (VAP) with six main issues: promoting political cooperation, building and sharing the behaviour standard, conflict prevention, conflict solution, post conflict peace maintenance, and forming implementation mechanisms. Based on these principles, activities such as intensifying conflict-solving mechanisms via negotiation, consultation, intermediary mediation, or TAC supreme council, peace and stability maintenance, and building assistance initiatives will be carried out. These cooperation mechanisms are supported by member countries and play an important role in securing peace and stability in the region, particularly concerning the East Sea. However, due to differences in national benefits and political systems, the realization and application of APSC in solving East Sea conflicts need time for any breakthroughs.

The complications in the East Sea will threaten the regional security and directly affect the goals, change the nature, and likely break the APSC’s leading principles and constructive solutions.

The complicated situation in the East Sea brought forth the determination to form APSC. In 2016, ASEAN continued to complete their proposed goals based on the general plan of building the APSC. Some goals are prioritized, such as the measures to promote cooperation in sea security, shipping freedom, and the resistance of terrorism and transnational criminals. The promotion of conversation, belief construction and common behaviour standards are also conducted.

ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)     

ASEAN wants to build a market in which goods, services, labor, and capital are freely circulated. ASEAN has proposed a global plan with various cooperation methods to build AEC, one of which is to build a common market and a common production site, create a competitive economy, ensure balanced economic development, and successfully integrate with the global economy.

To realise these goals, AEC needs a secure environment. The East Sea owns an important international marine route and diverse natural resources.

China continues to show a firm attitude in confirming its sovereignty. It actively approaches each country in ASEAN, causing internal division among them. China also strongly opposes the United States and deters and prevents the interference of other countries, and internalization of the East Sea issues. The Chinese Government continues to build its military strength, increase its presence, and increase its marine exploitation. These activities cause the situation to be more complicated, leading to economic loss (cooperation agreements are deterred, the cooperation process is interrupted, and legal cooperative exploitation of natural resources in the East Sea is decreased). These activities also affect the competition of big countries such as the US, Japan, India, and Russia. Therefore, the East Sea issues affect the AEC building process both directly and indirectly.    

Despite its many negative effects on the region, the East Sea conflict also facilitates many opportunities for the development of the AEC, as all related countries - both inside and outside the region - recognize the importance of the East Sea. The US carried out a “come back” policy in the Asia Pacific region and heavily intervened in the East Sea issue when China expressed its design for the East Sea. Other countries such as Japan, India, Australia, Russia which also have stake in the Sea, don’t want to lose their influence. Their intervention limits the China’s power and helps stabilize the region. Moreover, these big countries also increase economic cooperation with ASEAN and contribute to the construction of AEC.

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)

This community has a special role in the building process of the ASEAN community. ASEAN has developed a global plan related to cultural and social fields with the goal of building an ASEAN community centered on people who protect and help one another overcome the challenges of globalization. The ASCC’s primary goal is to promote social development and build ASEAN’s common character.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for ASEAN to reach agreements surrounding conflicts in the East Sea. Under China’s persuasion, some countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar directly or indirectly support solving East Sea problems bilaterally, which benefits China. In other words, ASEAN is a rather loose organization with low regional unity, high diversity especially in politics, society, and development among member countries. Therefore, with the impact of the East Sea issues, the maintenance of solidarity and unity in ASEAN as well as the leading role of ASEAN in the region face many difficulties. Additionally, the internal situation of some countries as well as the relationship among member countries is also complicated due to past distrust, which negatively affected the ASEAN solidarity, cooperation and prestige as well as the ASCC construction.  

The East Sea conflict requires member countries to exchange ideas to improve understanding. The Cultural-Social Community will help increase unity and decrease suspicion using forums and conferences.

Throughout its ups and downs, ASEAN has made great progress in becoming a highly appreciated active regional organization, practically contributing not only to the world’s political climate, but also within economy, culture and society.

Within each period, ASEAN has proposed suitable policies to develop and maintain the stability of the region, cleverly applying mechanisms to solve the East Sea conflict flexibly and effectively. In the coming years, however, ASEAN will meet several difficulties in keeping its role. Moreover, another existing challenge which negatively affects the East Sea issues is the unity among ASEAN member countries. For their own benefits, some countries in ASEAN not directly involved in the East Sea conflict continue to have a cautious attitude and avoid mentioning East Sea issues or voice their support for China. All these actions will both positively and negatively affect the development of ASEAN.



(1) Pham Gia Khiem: “ASEAN in the new development period and Vietnamese course of action”, International Research Magazine, vol. 2 (73), 6-2008, p.7


1. Pham Thi Thanh Binh: “Prospect in forming and the role of Vietnam”, Communist Magazine, vol. 817/2010, p 87-91.

2. Luan Thuy Duong: “40 years of cooperation in ASEAN and the way ahead”, International Research Magazine, vol. 2 (69)/2007, p.40-52.

3. Nguyen Thu My: “ASEAN Security Community: From idea to reality”, East Asia Research Magazine, vol. 4 (79)/2006, p.3-11.

4. Duong Van Quang,: “Opening Speech, The East Sea: Cooperation for the security and development in the region”, The Gioi (World) Publishers, Hanoi, 2010, p.19-22.

5. Phan Van Ran: “Advantages and Disadvantages during the construction of ASEAN”, East Asia Research Magazine, vol. 7 (124)/2010, p. 46–51.

6. Tran Truong Thuy: “ASEAN, China and the formation process of Code of conduct of different parties in the East Sea”, International Research Magazine, vol. 3 (78)/2009, p.5-24.

7. Ha Anh Tuan: “The formation process of ASEAN and the role of Vietnam”, International Research Magazine, vol. 4 (71)/2007, p.47-55

MA. Pham Thanh Bang

Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs


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