by ROBERTO TOFANI
Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, will deliver the keynote address at the 12th IISS Asia Security Summit(1), also called the Shangri-La Dialogue, which will convene in Singapore from 31 May to Jun 2.
The meeting is “a Track One security summit which brings together defense ministers, armed forces’ commanders, and the most senior defense officials, together with distinguished non-governmental experts from universities, think-tanks, the media and the private sector from all states with significant stakes in the security of the Asia-Pacific to engage in high-level international defense diplomacy on key regional security concerns,” according to the IISS website.
The Shangri-La Dialogue is widely recognised as the main inter-governmental regional security summit. Moreover, over the years “it has become an essential part of the institutional framework for Asia-Pacific security,” it is specified.
“We are delighted that Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung will be speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue. His participation and the perspective of Vietnam on current defense issues and conflict resolution opportunities will add significant weight to the crucial discussions about regional security which will take place there,” Dr. John Chipman, Director-General and CEO of the IISS, said.
The Socialist Republic is often described as an Asian tiger, a developing country that has been able to achieve positive results, especially in poverty reduction, economic growth and in an increase in literacy rates. Furthermore, together with other nine members (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand), Vietnam shares the common vision of an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) community, the base for a stronger regionalism.
Vietnam is increasingly an active member of the Association and a strategic regional player. For these reasons, and especially after a year during which the maritime disputes in the South China Sea have been assuming a dangerous profile, there are high expectations from Dung’s keynote address.
In 2012, the Shangri-La Dialogue was opened by the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose government has been acting as mediator especially at a regional level between China and ASEAN claimants in the dispute (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam). Among other security issues, Yudhoyono strongly underlined the dispute in the South China Sea, which more and more has implications both on a regional and international level. “We can accept that the overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims are still a long way from being resolved. However– the Indonesian president said–even without waiting for a resolution over territorial disputes, we can still find ways to transform the potential conflicts in the South China Sea into potential cooperation. We need to pick up speed. It took ten years for the Guidelines of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea to be completed. It should not take another ten years for the ASEAN-China Working Group to complete the Code of Conduct; we expect them to move on speedily with their task.”
But this year, despite the fact that the South China Sea issue is a flashpoint, it is not on the formal agenda of the three-day summit and none of the five plenary sessions will focus on that or on the protection of the maritime freedom as happened in 2012.
During the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue, the five plenary sessions will focus on: the ‘US approach to regional security’; ‘Defending National interests (Preventing conflict)’; ‘Military Modernisation and Strategic Transparency’; ‘New Trends in Asia-Pacific Security’ and ‘Advancing Defence Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific’.
The South China Sea issue “is likely to be raised when it is of relevance to regional security issues discussed in plenary session. It is up to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in the opening keynote dinner address to raise the South China Sea issue and to present not only Vietnam’s view but practical suggestions for the way ahead,” Carlyle A. Thayer of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra (Australia) stated in a recent briefing paper. This means that if the Prime Minister sidesteps the South China Sea issue, discussions are likely to turn to other security issues.
Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li agreed to start again talks with ASEAN on the legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) and setting up an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to complement government-to-government talks. The announcement came after a South East Asian tour during which Vietnam and the Philippines were omitted by the Chinese Foreign Minister. “Minister Wang is obviously trying to detect differences within ASEAN and to exert subtle pressure to isolate the Philippines, if not Vietnam,” explained Prof. Thayer.
For many observers, the maritime dispute in what the Vietnamese call the East Sea, involving four countries (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan), is exacerbating the relationships between Beijing and Hanoi, thus risking to undermine the stability in the region. On May 15, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested against China’s unilateral implementation of a ban on fishing in the South China Sea. “China’s unilateral implementation of the ban on fishing in the East Sea in 2013, which encompasses some portions of Vietnam’s waters, violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago, its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Luong Thanh Nghi said.
This announcement was made during the four-day visit by the Vietnamese Prime Minister to Russia, where he also inspected the testing progress of a Kilo-class submarine, which Vietnam has contracted to buy from Moscow. This is seen as a step in the effort to counterbalance China’s expanding maritime influence in the region.
The security summit thus comes at a significant moment, when the two parties have the opportunity to dialogue on the possibility of finalizing an agenda on which path to follow over the next several months. With his keynote address, which he will make in the presence of, among others, newly appointed US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Dung has a crucial opportunity to clarify Vietnam’s position and goals regarding the South China Sea issue.
1 – The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) was founded in the UK in 1958 with a focus on nuclear deterrence and arms control. Today, it is also renowned for its annual Military Balance assessment of countries’ armed forces and for its high-powered security summits, including the Shangri-La Dialogue.
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Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering South East Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext, an association of journalists committed to the concept of “information for change” and editor of Sudestasiatico.com.
A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 29 post(s) on Asia Security Watch