An appeal for greater strategic trust. This was the aim of Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s speech on Friday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional security forum in Singapore. More specifically, Vietnam’s prime minister called for unity among Southeast Asian countries, especially in this historical moment when China is asserting its claims in the South China Sea, or East Sea, as it was referred to by Dung during his remarks translated from Vietnamese.
On the eve of the event, there were high expectations for Dung’s keynote address, especially because the South China Sea issue was not on the formal agenda of the three-day summit. His speech opened underlining the importance of ‘trust’, a word that the Vietnamese prime minister repeated 28 times during his 25-minute presentation in front of a worldwide and distinguished audience, including the newly appointed US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel and Chinese General Qi Jianguo, the deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“In Viet Nam, there is a saying that ‘if trust is lost, all is lost.’ Trust is the beginning of all friendships and cooperation, the remedy that works to prevent calculations that could risk conflicts. Trust must be treasured and nurtured constantly by concrete, consistent actions and, most importantly, with a sincere attitude,” Dung stated.
Without a common trust “the unpredictable developments in the Korean Peninsula, territorial, maritime and island and natural resources disputes from the East China Sea to the East Sea (South China Sea)” that are evolving in such a complex fashion could be a serious threat to regional peace and security. Dung never mentioned China during his remarks on the maritime disputes, in which four other countries are involved, namely Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. However, when he underlined that “somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics,” referring to the issue that in the last two years has been assuming a dangerous profile and crossing regional borders, everybody knew that “somewhere” alluded to China.
On the contrary, Dung avoided to stress Vietnam’s claim to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, that are believed to be rich in fossil fuels, emphasizing instead the importance of maritime transport and communications in that portion of the region. Paraphrasing, one might say that Dung was calling attention to freedom of navigation, prized also by Washington. “It is projected that three fourths of global trade in the 21st century will be made via maritime routes and two thirds of that will be shipped across the East Sea. A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict could well lead to the interruption of such a huge trade flow, thus causing unforeseeable consequences not only to regional economies but also to the entire world,” Dung said .
There are, however, other major threats that cannot be underestimated and have to be tackled by building and reinforcing a strategic trust for peace. “The threats of religious and ethnic conflicts, egoistic nationalism, secessionism, violence, terrorism, cyber security, etc. are still very much present,” Dung underlined. Threats that are associated to the “global challenges like climate change, a rise in sea levels, pandemics or lack of water resources and the interests of upstream and downstream riparian countries of major rivers, etc., have become ever more acute.” Challenges that Vietnam has been facing and witnessing during the last decade.
Vietnam’s prime minister, in charge since 2006, called also for major powers to share proportionately in building that trust in this region, thus appealing for stronger U.S. – Chinese relations in the greater interest of the region as a whole.
“I fully share the views of H.E. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, who said last year at this forum that small and medium countries could help lock major powers into a durable regional architecture. I also agree with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on what he said in a speech in Beijing last September that a reliable and responsible cooperation between the United States and China would positively contribute to the common interest of the region. We all understand that the Asia-Pacific has sufficient room for all intra- and extra-regional countries to work together and share their interests,” Dung said , convinced that ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations) has an indispensable role. Dung, indeed, reminded his audience of the role that ASEAN has played as an ‘honest broker’, and in building regional cooperation mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings Plus (ADMM+), that together with the Shangri-La Dialogue, this year in its 12th edition, “offer the opportunities to foster multilateral security cooperation and find solutions to the arising challenges.”
Hence, after mentioning Myanmar “as a vivid example of the outcome of the perseverance to dialogue on the basis of building and reinforcing trust” and the “fundamentality of ASEAN’s consensus and unity in maintaining equal and mutually beneficial relations with partner countries”, Dung closed his speech returning to the East Sea, underlining the importance for ASEAN and China to work towards a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). “We believe that ASEAN and its partners can work together to develop a feasible mechanism that could guarantee maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation in the region.” In this context, from a Vietnamese perspective, Hanoi asserts and will protect its legitimate rights and interests in accordance with international law, especially with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But most importantly, “to have a genuine and lasting peace, the independence and sovereignty of any country, whether large or small, must be respected.”A Vietnamese appeal for greater strategic trust