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How COVID-19 is Stifling Vietnam’s Agenda to Vie with China over Disputed Sea    

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc walks to his desk ahead of the Special ASEAN summit on COVID-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam Tuesday, April 14, 2020. ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea hold the summit online to…
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc walks to his desk ahead of the Special ASEAN summit on COVID-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam Tuesday, April 14, 2020. ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea hold the summit online to…

The coronavirus outbreak is dashing hopes in Vietnam that its lead role in a regional bloc of countries this year will help resolve a sticky maritime sovereignty dispute with China.

Vietnam is chairing the 10-member country Association of Southeast Asian Nations through 2020, a once-per-decade opportunity for each bloc member. The association better known as ASEAN sometimes uses statements and talks to pressure Beijing over its South China Sea claims. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam dispute some of the Chinese claims. Vietnam is the most outspoken.

But online meetings of the type that ASEAN members have held this year to date, due to coronavirus concerns, are unlikely to produce diplomatic momentum, scholars say. In-person meetings build more trust, in turn generating more deals, and any events that do take place will focus more on responses to the coronavirus pandemic rather than on geopolitics, they believe.

“It’s different if you have a face-to-face meeting compared to an online meeting,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “Even if there’s a face-to-face meeting, I think the mindset of these ministers would be on this pandemic rather than the South China Sea.”

ASEAN dealmaking thrives on sideline meetings, scheduled breaks and other unrecorded sessions that are common at “live” events, said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “You don’t have the option of side meetings, or informal sessions,” Batongbacal said, referring to online events. “All the online meetings I’m sure will be recorded, so it will be very formal, so it’s going to be difficult for them to try to settle things off the record.”

The chair rotates to a different country each year, and chairs have power to set the year’s ASEAN agenda. Normally foreign ministers meet in mid-year and heads of state gather toward the end of each year to approve deals. Vietnam’s ASEAN role coincides with its U.N. Security Council presidency this year, giving it extra clout in foreign affairs.

Lack of of face-to-face meetings will sideline Vietnam’s “agenda” to ease the maritime dispute with China said Nguyen Thanh Trung, Center for International Studies director at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

It would also spare China the sometimes uncomfortable task of addressing a tough agenda.

Vietnam had hoped this year to strengthen relations with ASEAN’s “external partners” and expand the network, writes Frederick Kliem, a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

In the same spirit, Kleim writes in a paper as posted to a Vietnamese government website last month, Vietnam wanted to work on securing consensus among ASEAN nations when the bloc deals with outside countries. Action toward China in the past has faltered because Chinese allies such as Cambodia and Laos won’t go along.

ASEAN and China are due by next year to finish a code of conduct for the disputed 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. The code would set aside sovereignty differences and establish steps for handling mishaps between vessels, but no one’s sure whether the code will be binding or what tracts of sea it will cover.

Claimant countries value the South China Sea for its fisheries, shipping lanes and undersea energy reserves. China is the most militarily powerful.

The chair seldom pushes obviously “controversial” measures, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. For that reason, he said, the code of conduct has been pending for about a decade. “That actually is a very good illustration of the ASEAN dilemma,” Oh said.

As chair in 2010, Vietnam led the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and let the United States join ASEAN’s East Asia Summit. The “plus” refers to Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

Vietnam’s chief hope for South China Sea progress this year may be its participation as a “plus” member among a group of four Western-allied countries, Nguyen said. The group called the Quad Plus held two video conferences in March on COVID-19 remedies and economic impacts from the disease.

The quad countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — normally take action to keep the South China Sea open internationally rather than letting China tighten its grip.