Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

29 December 2020

Vietnam: Journalist arrested for criticizing tollbooth scheme

(lm) Authorities in Vietnam arrested a journalist earlier this month for social media posts criticizing tollbooths set up under a controversial infrastructure program. The journalist was detained by police on charges of “abusing democratic rights to infringe upon the benefits of other individuals and/or organizations”, under Article 331 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code. The arrest comes after authorities sentenced three administrators of a Facebook online political discussion group to lengthy prison sentences last week, citing the same article. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

Dissent is not tolerated in a country with no independent media, and authorities of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) routinely use a set of vague provisions in the penal code to detain dozens of activists, writers, and bloggers. As part of Hanoi’s increasing efforts to tighten control over the news media, a new decree went into effect on December 1. Under the new decree, signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in October, anyone sharing information that authorities deem harmful but not serious enough for a criminal penalty could face steeper fines and a longer, 12-month suspension.

29 December 2020

India, Vietnam strengthen defense ties, undertake PASSEX exercise in South China Sea

(lm) Taking place against China’s growing assertiveness in the region, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc co-hosted a virtual summit on December 21, signing seven agreements in areas ranging from defense to petrochemical and renewable energy research, and calling for a peaceful, “open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific. India also handed over one of 12 high-speed patrol boats being made for Vietnam under a $100 million line of credit. [South China Morning Post]

In the same vein as a Vietnam-Japan summit held earlier this year [AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3], the India-Vietnam summit stressed the importance of ensuring maritime safety and security in the South China Sea as well as peaceful dispute settlement and the adherence to international law. Regarding the latter the joint statement referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the aspired Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). [The Diplomat]

The summit marked the culmination of a series of high-level exchanges between the two sides throughout this year, including a visit by Vietnam’s vice-president to New Delhi, a phone conversation between the two prime ministers in April to discuss the COVID-19 situation, and an earlier online meeting in November on the sideline of the 37th ASEAN Summit [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3].

Separately, an Indian warship reached Ho Chi Minh City on December 24, delivering humanitarian relief supplies for people affected by floods in central Vietnam under New Delhi’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) III mission. What is more, the visit is also aimed at enhancing maritime cooperation between the two countries, as the warship will be partaking in a Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with the Vietnam People’s Navy in South China Sea, to be held between December 26 and 27. [Hindustan Times] [WION]

22 December 2020

Vietnam: Currency manipulation allegations rejected

(nd) In response to the US’ move to label Vietnam a currency manipulator, Vietnam refuted the allegations, with the State Bank of Vietnam insisting, “exchange rate management in recent years is within its general framework of monetary policy and aims to achieve the consistent goal of controlling inflation, stabilizing macroeconomy”, which therefore does not create an unfair competitive advantage for the nation. The Vietnamese Dong traded at 23,127 per US dollar, with the benchmark VN Index of Vietnamese stocks loosing 1 per cent in early trade.

The US Treasury put new names of potential currency manipulators of a “monitoring list”, which are India, Taiwan, and Thailand, alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Singapore, and Malaysia. [South China Morning Post]

22 December 2020

Vietnam: Facebook user arrested

(nd) Following allegations of abusing democratic freedom and publishing posts against the state, prominent Facebook user and former journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh was arrested last week. He has nearly 168,000 followers and shared several anti-state posts, “causing division of national unity” according to the police report. This comes amid an increased crackdown on opposition figures and activists ahead of a key party congress in January next year. Facebook is under constant government scrutiny, with government already threatening to shut it down it the network does not censor political content. [Voice of America]

22 December 2020

ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021

(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.

15 December 2020

Vietnam: Government intensified crackdown on dissidents in 2020, according to rights activists

(lm) Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year, as authorities have stepped up arrests and harsh gag orders on activists, independent journalists, and bloggers who raise concerns or criticism of their government, according to rights groups. What is more, experts say the coronavirus pandemic has diverted attention away from Hanoi, allowing the government to get away with intensifying crackdowns. [Radio Free Asia]

A case in point, Pham Chi Thanh, author of books and essays critical of Vietnam’s communist government, earlier this month was transferred from the detention center to a mental hospital. He has been held since May on charges under Article 117 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code for ‘producing, storing, and disseminating information and documents against the Vietnamese state’. [AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]

In another example, Vietnam’s government in November threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if the social media giant does not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on its platform [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4]. The company has long faced criticism from rights group for too willingly acquiescing to government censorship demands, instead of using its leverage as Vietnam’s biggest media platform to hold the line against censorship [see e.g. AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1].

15 December 2020

ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects

(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]

8 December 2020

Vietnam condemns both China and Taiwan’s ‘illegal’ acts in South China Sea

(lm) Vietnam has condemned Taiwan for holding live fire drills in what Hanoi considers its rightful waters in the South China Sea, saying the military exercises conducted on November 24 off the disputed Spratly Islands archipelago constituted a ‘grave violation of Vietnamese territory.’ [Hanoi Times] [VN Express]

Hanoi also protested Chinese authorities’ decision to grant permission for two domestic cruise ships to depart on an itinerary to the disputed Paracel Islands, further condemning the deployment of a newly commissioned hospital ship to the South China Sea. [The Maritime Execute] [Janes] [The Star]

1 December 2020

Malaysia, China to standoff in South China Sea

(nd) Tensions arise from a newly standoff over oil and gas drilling in the South China Sea between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and Royal Malaysian Navy. The Chinese vessel approached the jack-up rig working for  Thailand’s national upstream company PTTEP off Sarawak, East Malaysia, which impacted the rig and its support vessels. Malaysia deployed a naval vessel in response.

China could aim to further escalate the standoff with further deployments to drilling sites off Malaysia, since it claims some 80% of the Luconia Shoals. On the other hand, it entails serious provocation to Malaysia, this close to its shores. [Upstream]

1 December 2020

Vietnam: Dissident writer transferred to mental hospital

(nd) Dissident writer and blogger Pham Thanh was transferred from the detention center to a mental hospital. He has been held since May on charges under Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code for “producing, storing, and disseminating information and documents against the Vietnamese state”, with his detention of four month awaiting trial extended another three months. Pham Thanh wrote and published books and essays criticizing Vietnam’s communist government and leaders.

Dissident voices are silenced diligently in Vietnam, with a growing number of journalists being charged, and another blogger for the Voice of America having been detained in July 2018 and brought to a mental hospital where he was allegedly mistreated. [Radio Free Asia]


24 November 2020

Vietnam: Government threatens to shut down Facebook over censorship request

(lm) Vietnam’s government has threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if the social media giant does not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on its platform, Reuters reported, citing an unidentified senior company official. Facebook initially agreed to step up censorship of anti-state posts for local users in April. However, the government in August made another request for the company to further increase its restrictions of critical posts, threatening to shut the social media platform down if the company does not comply. [Reuters]

Facebook is astoundingly popular in Vietnam, counting more than half the country’s people among its account holders, who have turned the platform into a vibrant public sphere outside and beyond the ambit of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and its wooden state media outlets. At the same time, in a country with no independent media, the company is under constant government scrutiny, with Facebook repeatedly censoring dissenting posts at the request of the Vietnamese authorities. In August 2019, Vietnam’s information minister told the parliament that the company was complying with ‘70-75 percent’ of the government’s requests to remove content, up from about 30 percent previously. But what is more, since April, there has also been an increased number of cases in which journalists, bloggers, and activists were prosecuted for their activities on Facebook [see e.g. AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]

Thus, the company has long faced criticism from rights group for too willingly acquiescing to government censorship demands, instead of using its leverage as Vietnam’s biggest media platform to hold the line against censorship [see e.g. AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]. At the same time, observers say that the public outrage which would follow any attempt to ban the platform would make it entirely possible that Facebook could simply call the government’s bluff. Hence, between the poles of the desire for profit in the one instance, and the fear of political instability in the other, the relationship between the social media giant and the Vietnamese government may likely remain in a state of stable tension. [The Diplomat]


24 November 2020

Asian countries divided over UN death penalty moratorium

(dql) In a poll on a resolution which calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the 39 countries which voted against the resolution in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. They include Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.

120 countries voted for the resolution, including over 15 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 24 countries abstained from the vote. Asia-Pacific countries among these are Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. [Human Rights Watch]

24 November 2020

US National Security Adviser tells Vietnam to curb illegal Chinese shipment to avoid duties

(lm) During a two-day visit to Hanoi, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien urged Vietnamese leaders to intensify efforts to curb the illegal re-routing of Chinese transshipments and to reduce Hanoi’s bilateral trade surplus to reverse recently imposed US tariffs. [South China Morning Post 1]

According to observers, the Southeast Asian country has emerged as one of the largest beneficiaries of the ongoing trade dispute between China and the United States as some businesses are relocating their supply chains from China in order to avoid tariffs. At the same time, Vietnam relies heavily on China for materials and equipment for its labor-intensive manufacturing. Meanwhile, the United States is its largest export market. [Deutsche Welle]

After Washington in October announced an official investigation into whether Hanoi had manipulated its currency [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1], the US Commerce Department this month imposed preliminary anti-subsidy duties on Vietnamese car and truck tires, citing the nation’s ‘undervalued currency’ among the reasons. Before, the US Treasury Department in January had already placed Vietnam on a watchlist of ten potential currency manipulators that also includes Malaysia and Singapore. [Bloomberg]

Before, O’Brien had taken part in the virtual East Asia Summit, on the sidelines of which 15 countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, signed the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which marks a major setback for the US influence in Asia [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. On a more positive note, US conglomerate General Electric and a Vietnamese company signed a memorandum of understanding to develop an LNG (liquified natural gas) power plant near Ho Chi Minh City, during O’Brien’s visit to Hanoi. [The Business Times]

What is noteworthy, the visit follows a visit to Hanoi last month by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which had yielded no concrete agreements, despite the high expectations for Pompeo’s trip [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]. Some observers suggest that O’Brien’s on-again trip may have been aimed at signaling consistency and continuity in Washington’s hardened stance on the South China Sea dispute, despite the transition from Trump to Biden. [South China Morning Post 2]


24 November 2020

Vietnam: Government threatens to shut down Facebook over censorship request

(lm) Vietnam’s government has threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if the social media giant does not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on its platform, Reuters reported, citing an unidentified senior company official. Facebook initially agreed to step up censorship of anti-state posts for local users in April. However, the government in August made another request for the company to further increase its restrictions of critical posts, threatening to shut the social media platform down if the company does not comply. [Reuters]

Facebook is astoundingly popular in Vietnam, counting more than half the country’s people among its account holders, who have turned the platform into a vibrant public sphere outside and beyond the ambit of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and its wooden state media outlets. At the same time, in a country with no independent media, the company is under constant government scrutiny, with Facebook repeatedly censoring dissenting posts at the request of the Vietnamese authorities. In August 2019, Vietnam’s information minister told the parliament that the company was complying with ‘70-75 percent’ of the government’s requests to remove content, up from about 30 percent previously. But what is more, since April, there has also been an increased number of cases in which journalists, bloggers, and activists were prosecuted for their activities on Facebook [see e.g. AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]

Thus, the company has long faced criticism from rights group for too willingly acquiescing to government censorship demands, instead of using its leverage as Vietnam’s biggest media platform to hold the line against censorship [see e.g. AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]. At the same time, observers say that the public outrage which would follow any attempt to ban the platform would make it entirely possible that Facebook could simply call the government’s bluff. Hence, between the poles of the desire for profit in the one instance, and the fear of political instability in the other, the relationship between the social media giant and the Vietnamese government may likely remain in a state of stable tension. [The Diplomat]

17 November 2020

ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally

(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.

A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]

Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.

At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.

Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]

The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]

Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]

17 November 2020

East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response

(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.

The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]

17 November 2020

South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor

(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.

This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat

10 November 2020

Laos: Demands to investigate pollution from Chinese and Vietnamese farms

(py) Residents of southeastern Laos’ Sekong province urged government authorities to investigate Chinese and Vietnamese-owned farms over their extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  An official of the Department of Planning and Investment announced to investigate, adding that due to the COVID-19 pandemic many investors have not returned to Laos. The concerned banana plantations contributed to US$ 100 million in annual export in 2017 and are a major source of employment in rural Laos. Yet, banana farming is infamous for illness and deaths among workers due to an exposure to chemicals. Additionally, the run-off from the farms polluted near water sources, killing fish and contaminating drinking water. [Radio Free Asia] [China Dialogue]

10 November 2020

ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen

(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]

10 November 2020

Vietnam-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held

(jn) The Foreign Ministers of Vietnam and Australia on Thursday met virtually for their second annual Vietnam-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that focuses on the pandemic and disputes in the South China Sea. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne agreed on strengthening bilateral cooperation for the post-pandemic economic recovery and to resume flights at an appropriate time. On the South China Sea subject, both stressed the importance of cooperation, peace and safety of navigation and aviation, and peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. They agreed their respective support of forums like the UN, ASEAN, EAS, and Mekong Sub-region. Concluding, they signed the Action Program to Implement Vietnam-Australia Strategic Partnership until 2023. [vovworld]

10 November 2020

Vietnam urges adherence to international law and friendly relations

(jn) In a virtual UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung emphasized that countries need to foster friendly relations and adhere to the UN Charter and international law in general, explicitly mentioning the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He said that the international community was threatened by disrespect for and violations of the core principles of the UN Charter and the UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on “The Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States. The UNSC’s virtual session on “Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace: Contemporary Drivers of Conflict and Insecurity” took place on November 3rd and was attended by UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed. [Vietnam News]

3 November 2020

Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership

(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.

The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]

3 November 2020

What Vietnam expects from the United States after the 2020 US election

(jn) Depending on the outcome of the US presidential election, the prospects for the burgeoning US-Vietnamese relations and the US involvement in South East Asia may change, or perhaps not so much, according to a recent analysis for The Diplomat.

In economic and security matters, both countries have continued to inch towards each other in recent years, with notable exceptions. The US are Vietnam’s biggest export market and also a strategic partner that is increasing its presence in Vietnam’s neighborhood and even providing for training and security assistance. On the other hand, Vietnam remains as cautious about the Trump administration’s abrasive trade diplomacy, as it worries about being ground between the superpower rivalry of the US and China. China not only continues to be Vietnam’s largest trading partner but is also close in political and historical terms – something one can easily forget over the frictions in the South China Sea. This means that Vietnam cannot afford the single-minded security approach currently pursued by the US due to the multifaceted relationship with China. While Vietnam would welcome continued “Freedom of Navigation Operations” and an outspokenness on China’s encroachment in the South China Sea, it would also like Sino-US tensions to decrease. Vietnam would also stand to gain the most from the US rejoining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Larger and targeted infrastructure investments – the likes of which China has been using as a geopolitical gateway – by the US would also boost the relationship with Vietnam. Another step towards diversifying and at the same time strengthening US-Vietnamese relations would be a continued, if not heightened support for the Mekong-riparian countries.

Finally, whoever will govern in the coming years, the US will have to rely (even) more on its regional alliances such as the Quad, to effectively and sustainably build an anti-pole to China’s rise. [The Diplomat]


3 November 2020

Vietnamese vessels dare Indonesia’s sovereignty in South China Sea

(jn) According to the activist group Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia, Vietnamese fishing boats have intruded into Indonesia’s territorial waters in the North Natuna Sea, making up about two thirds of the more than 30 foreign-flagged ships that carried out illegal fishing between June and October of this year. None of those ships hailed from China. A DFW representative called on the Indonesian government to take action against these intrusions – which have increased since last year – by stepping up surveillance or military patrols. He said this was necessary for the sake of deterrence, since the Vietnamese vessels were maneuvering aggressively by either fleeing or crashing with the encountering Indonesian monitoring ships.

Only in January, Indonesian military vessels expelled more than 50 Chinese ships from the area that China claims for itself, as it is encircled by China’s infamous nine-dash-line. However, inner-ASEAN disputes are not uncommon either, such as between Vietnam and Indonesia, who are still in negotiations about the exact boundaries of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). According to experts, Vietnamese forays are not so much motivated by a rejection of Indonesian sovereignty, but rather by economics. [South China Morning Post]

3 November 2020

Vietnam: Reporters without Borders decry Facebook’s blocking of posts

(jn) Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) criticized Facebook on Friday for blocking posts of journalistic articles in Vietnam that are critical of the country’s one-party government. The critique comes after Trung Khoa Le, a Vietnamese journalist living in Germany, alarmed the group after four of his posts were blocked “due to local legal restrictions”. RWB said the censored posts were linked to an article in the German newspaper taz that dealt with a relative of the Vietnamese interior minister reportedly being involved in drug smuggling. Another of the articles reported on Vietnamese hackers allegedly spying on dissidents in Germany.

Facebook confirmed that some links are being blocked in Vietnam, describing operating there recently as “a special challenge”, but said it was committed to defend freedom of expression worldwide. The German RWB chief said that Facebook must be aware of the critical function it provides for journalists in countries with restrictions to freedom of the press. [DPA]


3 November 2020

Pompeo completes Asia trip with last-minute stop in Vietnam

(jn) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded his Asia-tour by paying Vietnam a visit on short notice during which he stressed the US’ respect for the country’s sovereignty and the commitment to strengthen bilateral relationships. In his meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the latter said that he sought “sincere cooperation” to achieve peace and economic progress in the region. Even though China was not mentioned, Pompeo’s trip reflected US intentions to shore up its alliances to counter China’s geopolitical ambitions, which Vietnam faces as a claimant state in the disputed South China Sea.

Mr. Pompeo also met with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and Minister of Public Security To Lam, who helms the department responsible for cracking down against dissidents. Only days prior to the visit, Vietnam released a US citizen from prison and send him back to the US [see entry above]. 

Pompeo’s trip coincided with the US and Vietnam celebrating 25 years of normalized diplomatic ties this year. [Reuters] [Asia Nikkei Review] During the US-initiated Indo-Pacific Business Forum on October 28, Mr. Minh also said that a strong and united ASEAN would benefit all member states and the US. He said that Vietnam and the US had become major economic partners, referencing the signing of trade agreements worth billions of US dollars. [Hanoi Times]

3 November 2020

Vietnam: US citizen released from prison after being in custody for two years

(jn) A US citizen, incarcerated with a 12-year prison sentence for “attempting to overthrow the people’s government”, was released prematurely after 27 months.

The California-resident was charged for inciting protesters to attack government offices with Molotov cocktails and slingshots, was allowed to return to the US from Ho-Chi-Min-City for humanitarian reasons, according to the US embassy in Hanoi. In July 2018, he reported, he was arrested by unidentified men in civilian clothes, blindfolded and handcuffed. He said that he had been interrogated for 16 hours at a time on many days, and not been allowed to contact his family for the first two months, and after that only on rare, monitored occasions. He was not afforded the opportunity of a fair trial, in which he could have defended himself, and did not get a proper consular legal counsel either. Two other people were detained with him and sentenced to 10 years and 8 years in prison, respectively, also for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, but who are still in jail.  [Radio Free Asia[Radio Free Asia 2][Reuters]


27 October 2020

China to share Mekong river data with downstream countries

(jn) Last Thursday, China signed an agreement with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an intergovernmental organization of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – according to which it will share year-round and current data on water flows of the Mekong. The move was welcomed by other stakeholder nations as helpful in monitoring and forecasting floods and droughts on the important regional waterway. The MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer lauded the agreement as a “landmark in the history of China-MRC cooperation”.  The US, previously urged for more transparency on the Mekong’s flow, also praised the data sharing agreement as vital to downstream countries.

The Mekong is severely impacted by 13 dams in China and Laos, and others along its tributaries, that have significantly altered the natural flow of the 3,100-mile river for more than 60 million people depending on the water source.

China’s dam constructions have come under criticism for contributing to recent droughts that have severely damaged agriculture and depleted fish stocks downstream. Eyes on Earth, a US-based research and consulting firm, reported in April 2020 a striking gap between the volume of rainfall on the Chinese part of the Mekong and the water masses arriving further south. [Radio Free Asia[The Diplomat]

27 October 2020

Japan’s Suga pledges security assistance for ASEAN’s coasts

(jn) Japan’s Prime Minister Suga announced in Jakarta on Wednesday that his country will provide patrol boats to Southeast Asian governments, like Indonesia and Vietnam, presenting an effort to help these countries secure their waters around the disputed South China Sea. Mr. Suga stressed the importance of adhering to the rule of law and peaceful conflict settlement in international waterways and lamented recent breaches of maritime law in the region. He explicitly pointed out combating illegal fishing as a reason to supply ASEAN countries with patrol boats. [Radio Free Asia]

The rhetoric and the agreement’s content match the overall strategic play of Mr. Suga during his South East Asian round trip, namely boosting Japan’s economic and security ties to ASEAN members that themselves are facing Chinese encroachment in what they see either as territorial or international waters. [Asia Times]

27 October 2020

South China Sea sees semi-permanent Chinese presence

(nd) According to the recent analysis of ship-tracking data and satellite imagery, Chinese vessels have stayed almost without interruption five months at the Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines; for three months at Vanguard Bank off Vietnam’s southern coast; and seven months at the Union Banks, which feature outposts for both China and Vietnam. This highlights a semi-permanent, enduring presence in the disputed area and economic zones, which China claims almost entirely. [Radio Free Asia]

Recently, a Filipino fishermen’s group reiterated the respect for fishing security and rights of the Filipino and vicariously for other claimant nation’s fishing rights and their EEZ, which they see threatened by rising Chinese presence. [Radio Free Asia]

Also, Chinese fishing boats have repeatedly and illegally entered other countries EEZs in the region. China’s historical claims are not valid under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), following a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016. Yet, there is no common ASEAN action to curb Chinese presence, also in light of the mostly tight economic ties with China following infrastructural investments within China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Despite that, US security alliances were strengthened recently. [The Diplomat]  

27 October 2020

US to send coast guard to tackle Chinese illegal fishing in South China Sea

(dql) In the line with increasing international criticism of China’s illegal fishing in waters around the world [AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], the US announced the deployment of Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter “destabilizing and malign” activities by China in disputed fishing grounds of the South China Sea. White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien cited for this decision China’s “illegal” and “unregulated” fishing, along with “harassment” of fishing boats from regional countries. [News 18]

27 October 2020

Vietnam: Facebook user arrested for criticizing government

(jn) Vietnamese government forces have detained a man on charges of “distributing or collecting state secrets and other materials” under Article 337 of the Penal Code after he had posted criticism of the one-party communist government and political issues on Facebook. The man, Nguyen Quang Khai (51) was summoned for questioning and arrested by the police in Bien Hoa city on October 20. [Radio Free Asia]

27 October 2020

Vietnam moves up in Asia Power Index

(jn) Vietnam has climbed up one place in the annual Asia Power Index 2020 of the Lowy Institute, an Australian thinktank, due to gains in the category of economic capability. Thus, it now ranks 12th out of 26 countries and territories, overtaking New Zealand. [Lowy Institute Asia Power Index 2020 Edition] [Hanoi Times]

20 October 2020

Chinese vessels intrude into Vietnamese EEZ

(jn) Ship tracking data have shown that a Chinese survey ship escorted by a coastguard ship entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) along Vietnam’s central coast on Monday, Oct. 12. The survey ship of the type Shiyan-1 is operated by the Chinese Institute for Acoustics, that had already been expelled from the Eastern Indian Ocean by India’s navy in December 2019 because it had been suspected of mapping the topography of the ocean floor for military purposes. [Radio Free Asia]


20 October 2020

Vietnam, Japan visit with arms deal in tow

(jn) On his three-day state visit starting on Sunday, newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihige Suga agreed with his counterpart Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi on Monday to accelerate the reopening of borders for short-term business travelers and restart two-way passenger flights. This comes after both countries had already decided in July to resume business travel for expatriates and long-term residents.

Seemingly acknowledging China’s geopolitical rise in the region, the two leaders also agreed to cooperate on the “free and open Indo-Pacific” initiative. Japan is one of the countries that Vietnam is turning to in its effort to find other economic and military allies as response to China’s ambitions, especially in the South China Sea dispute.

Both stressed the importance of ensuring maritime safety and security in the South China Sea as well as peaceful dispute settlement and the adherence to international law. Regarding the latter they referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the aspired Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

The prime ministers signed twelve agreements on the economy, environment, public infrastructure, healthcare, agriculture, energy, and the transfer of defense technologies. The energy agreements particularly deal with a thermal power plant and a liquefied natural gas power plant, both under development and expected to start operation in 2026.

Mr. Suga also said that his government would provide Vietnam healthcare equipment worth almost $38 million to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

He also met with Vietnamese President and Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong on Monday. [Asia Nikkei Review 1] [Vietnam Express]

One of the most significant agreements that Japan and Vietnam signed allows Japan to export defense equipment and technology to Vietnam. Mr. Suga said that it was “a big step in the field of security for both countries that we reached an agreement in principle” in this area. [Reuters]

Mr. Suga’s trip to South East Asia was set to focus on security cooperation between countries that each face the geopolitical encroachment of China on their doorsteps, most prominently in the South China Sea dispute. With such a cooperation and potential arms sales, Japan aims to prop up the defense capabilities of other Indo-Pacific nations to rein in Chinese maritime advances. Among the military goods Japan could also offer are patrol and transport planes as well as warning and control radar systems.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 80% of Vietnam’s arms in the last decade came from Russia, however, the country has intensified cooperation with Japan and the U.S. in the face of rising Chinese dominance.  [Asia Nikkei Review 2] [Vietnam News]

20 October 2020

Philippines: Military Chief calls situation in South China Sea “very tense”

(nd) Philippine armed forces chief, General Gilbert Gapay, labeled the situation in the South China Sea as “very tense”, with China conduction unilateral exercises and firing missiles in August this year. Since China claims almost the entire waters, it forces the claimant states – Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – into conflict for they have to react to China’s creation of facts. China has been building artificial islands and militarizing atolls in the disputed territory. In conjunction with a state visit, Malaysian and Chinese foreign ministers released a press statement on their determination for peace and stability in the disputed waters and their continued effort together with ASEAN members to agree on a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, which has been unresolved for almost two decades.

While both top diplomats of China – comparing the US-led “Quad”-initiate with “old-fashioned Cold War mentality“ – and the US blame the respective other, General Gapay highlighted both nation’s fault at creating uncertainty and aggression. [Thailand News]

20 October 2020

Vietnam: Jailed democracy activist in new hunger strike

(jn) Vietnamese pro-democracy activist Tran Huynh Duy Thuc has entered his third hunger strike within two years, demanding that his 16-year sentence be reduced under a law that was enacted after his sentencing. He was jailed in 2010 pursuant to Art. 79 of the penal code for criticizing the Vietnamese government in his online articles. [Radio Free Asia]

13 October 2020

Japan: Rare solo maritime exercise in South China Sea

(dql) At a time when India and China are about to edge towards a war and ‘Quad’ cohesion is growing, Japan just deployed three warships to the West Philippine Sea for anti-submarine exercises including one of its light helicopter aircraft carriers. To replenish supply, the warships will use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. [Japan Times]

The exercises are one of rare occasions in decades in which Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces embark on a solo mission outside Japanese territorial waters.

13 October 2020

Indonesia: Vaccine cooperation no influence on South China Sea position

(nd) Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the recent cooperation with China on Covid-19 vaccines will not influence its position on the South China Sea. Despite not being a claimant state in the heavily disputed waters, Indonesia and China battle over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands in the southern part. Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off northern Natuna islands and left after radio communication.

Indonesia also cooperates with the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and the United Kingdom, in developing its own vaccine. Indonesia is one of few candidates participating in a late-stage human trial of China’s Sinovac Biotech Covid-19 vaccine candidate, and also works together with Chinese company Sinopharm. [Channel News Asia]

13 October 2020

Vietnam plans to double renewables, cut emissions by 2030

(jn) According to government estimates, Vietnam will increase its renewable energy share in its power supply mix from now 10% to 15-20% in the next decade, while it seeks to slash emission by 15% until 2030. [Nikkei Asia Review]

13 October 2020

Vietnam: Prominent journalist and human rights activist arrested

(jn) Prominent journalist and human rights activist Pham Doan Trang has been arrested for “propaganda against the state”, according to state media on Wednesday, causing widespread condemnation among international observers and NGOs. Just hours after Vietnam had conducted its annual human rights dialogue with the US, she was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday and charged under article 117 of the Vietnamese Penal Code for “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

The 42-year-old is the co-founder of the dissident blog Luat Khoa Tap Chi (Journal of Law) and has long been outspoken on issues like the human rights situation in the country. She had also covered the land dispute in Dong Tam that ended in a deadly clash between protesters and police this January and led to death sentences for two brothers and prison terms for 27 other villagers [Air No. 40, October/2020, 1]. Trang had published the 3rd edition of a report about the Dong Tam incident; three other authors had been arrested for publishing the first edition of that report and were charged with anti-state propaganda in June.

Seemingly expecting a potential arrest, Trang had already penned a letter in May 2019 to be published in the event of her detention in which she came up with a manifesto of reform of Vietnam’s political system demanding freedom for Vietnam. Friends of her have also posted a message that they say was written by her in advance, that said: “Nobody wants to go to jail, but if prison is the place for those who fight for freedom, and if it is the place to carry out set goals, then we should go to prison”.

Demanding her immediate release, Amnesty International estimates that Trang not only faces up to 20 years in prison but is also at “imminent risk of torture and other-ill treatment at the hands of the Vietnamese authorities.”

Human Rights Watch excoriated Vietnam’s “scorched earth response to political dissent”. Trang’s detainment was a grave injustice that violated Vietnam’s international human rights commitments and that should be met with protest by the UN and governments around the world.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said that the US was concerned about the reported arrest and was “monitoring the situation closely.”

Trang’s arrest could be a harbinger of the Communist Party’s leadership tightening the reins ahead of the Party Congress come January. It also shows that despite the US and Vietnam inching towards each in terms of geopolitical alignment in the South China Sea dispute, the contrasts in other political questions like human rights and democratic governance remains stark. [The Diplomat] [Radio Free Asia]

13 October 2020

US trade deficit with Vietnam surges to record high

(jn) The United States’ trade deficit with Vietnam soared to an all-time high in August, a sensitive issue given that just days ago the Trump administration announced an official probe into potential currency manipulation and illegal timber trade that could lead to sanctions such as punitive tariffs [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].

The US deficit for trade in goods rose by 11% between July and August to almost $ 8 billion, an almost 39% increase from a year earlier, according to US government data. [South China Morning Post]

13 October 2020

US and Vietnam hold human rights dialogue, US lawmakers call for release of democracy activist

(jn) The Unites States and Vietnam held their 24th Annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue on October 6, 2020 via virtual sessions. According to a US Department of State press release, the three-hour dialogue covered a wide range of human rights issues, like the importance of continued progress and bilateral cooperation on the rule of law, civil and political rights as well as the rights of vulnerable populations. [US Department of State Media Note]

Ahead of the conference, three members of the US House of Representatives had called on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address with Vietnam the case of imprisoned democracy activist Nguyen Bac Truyen who has been jailed for more than a decade. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Harley Rouda and Alan Lowenthal (all D-CA) wrote in a letter that Bac Truyen’s ongoing detention was a clear example of Vietnam abusing the rights and freedoms of its citizens.

Bac Truyen is a former political prisoner and member of the online Brotherhood for Democracy group. His arrest in July of 2017 by Vietnamese authorities in central Quang Binh province was described by his relatives as a “kidnapping.” He was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government” after a one-day trial in April 2018.

The lawmakers said that a release could show Vietnam’s commitment to improving conditions for personal freedoms and urged Mr. Pompeo to raise the case of prisoners of conscience like Nguyen during the conference. [Radio Free Asia]

6 October 2020

Vietnam warns China to not endanger maritime code talks with military drills

(jn) Vietnam cautioned on Thursday that Chinese military exercises near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea would put the negotiations for a regional maritime code of conduct (COC) at risk, just when the talks between China and ASEAN members were about to restart. China began five military exercises simultaneously along different parts of its coast on Monday, including two exercises near said island chain that is also claimed by Vietnam.

Agreeing on the COC has been an objective of ASEAN and China for almost two decades, even its legal (binding) character has been doubted by experts as China genuine commitment to it. [Reuters] [Vietnam News]

6 October 2020

Vietnam and UK agree to pursue Free Trade Agreement 

(jn) During the visit of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to Vietnam on September 29-30 he and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc affirmed their countries’ intentions of concluding a free trade deal in the near future. Phuc said a free trade deal with Britain that his country deemed a major trading partner would “help both countries to boost economic recovery in post COVID-19 pandemic period.” 

The U.K. Foreign Secretary also tweeted that Vietnam had a key role to play in regional stability in East Asia and that he had met with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh “to re-emphasize the UK’s commitment to work together, including on maritime security, Myanmar and multilateralism through ASEAN and the UN Security Council. The UK has enjoyed a “Strategic Partnership” with Vietnam since 2010. 

Mr. Raab also announced on Twitter that the UK had secured Vietnam’s public support for it to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), describing this as “a significant step in taking the U.K.-Vietnam economic relationship to the next level, and demonstrating the U.K.’s commitment and value to the region.”

Such a free trade deal would come at the right time for the UK as it is still seeking to disengage itself from the EU, while Vietnam is trying to boost its Covid-battered economy and attract new trading partners in its quest to reduce its economic reliance on China. [The Diplomat] [Reuters]

6 October 2020

Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential

(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.

In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.

Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.

A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.

The backdrop for these developments is a raging pandemic with sometimes haphazard public health responses additionally undermining credibility and trust. [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]


6 October 2020

Indonesia, Vietnam to be first on Suga’s list

(nd) According to Japanese media outlets, Japan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is considering his first state trip to be to Indonesia and Vietnam. Predecessor Abe Shinzo’s first state visits after his reelection in 2021 were also Vietnam and Indonesia, emphasizing his vision of the “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Suga is committed to continuing Abe’s foreign policy to strike a careful balance between economic engagement and strategic competition with China, and a special focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With its position between two oceans, Southeast Asia became a key focus of Japanese diplomacy. Bilateral relations improved under Abe, intensifying trade, security cooperation and infrastructure development, with strategic partnerships in place since 2006 (Indonesia) respectively 2014 (Vietnam). Both countries’ relationship to Japan are forged by shared concerns over Chinese presence, be it either in disputed waters of East and South China Sea or through infrastructure funding under the Belt and Road Initiative. [The Diplomat]


6 October 2020

Vietnam eyes 6.5% growth in five-year plan 

(jn) According to a draft five-year economic plan that is envisaged to be passed at the coming Communist Party convention in January, Vietnam will aspire an average GDP growth of 6.5% to 7% for 2021-2025, while boosting per capita GDP from about $2.800 to $4.700. [Asia Nikkei Review]


6 October 2020

Vietnam: Defendants in Dong Tam trial file appeal

(jn) Five defendants who had been convicted for their involvement in a deadly land-rights clash in January at the Dong Tam commune [AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3] filed appeals with a Hanoi court last week for what they deem too harsh sentences for first time offenders. Two brothers were sentenced to death last month after being charged with murder in the deaths of three police officers who were killed in the January clash. [Radio Free Asia]

6 October 2020

Vietnamese University professor arrested for ‘Slandering’ local Communist party chief

(jn) Police in Vietnam arrested a Ho Chi Minh City university professor on Wednesday on charges of slandering a local Communist Party official by accusing him of plagiarizing the thesis he wrote for his doctoral degree, according to state media reports. Pham Dinh Quy, a university lecturer, was formally arrested on Sept. 30 under Article 156 of Vietnam’s Penal Code after publishing articles online and in print criticizing Dak Lak province party chief Bui Van Cuong. [Radio Free Asia]

6 October 2020

US plans to investigate Vietnam over suspected currency manipulation 

(jn) The Trump administration has announced an official investigation into whether Vietnam has manipulated its currency, an inquiry that could lead to trade sanctions and that would come after the Trump administration had determined in August that Vietnam had manipulated its currency in a specific trade case involving tires. 

The Office of the United States Trade Representative said it would probe Vietnam’s importation and use of timber, which it deemed illegally harvested and traded. It would also investigate whether Vietnam has undervalued its currency, leading to unfairly cheap exports. The probe will be carried out pursuant to Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act.

The US Treasury Department has already placed Vietnam on a watchlist of ten potential currency manipulators that also includes Malaysia and Singapore this January. It remains unclear whether the sanctions such as new tariffs would be enforced before the US presidential election on November 3 and which goods would be targeted.

Sanctions could come in the form of new tariffs on imports and new federal rules passed this year in the US that allows the Commerce Department greater leeway to raise duties in specific response to currency manipulation. [The New York Times] [Bloomberg 1] [Bloomberg 2] [Asia Times]

29 September 2020

ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation 

(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.

At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]

29 September 2020

Vietnamese political prisoners in hunger strike 

(jn) Three detained activists in Vietnam are said to have been in a hunger strike to protest conditions in prison since September 5. One of the inmates was convicted after he had criticized the government’s handling of environmental damage resulting from a massive toxic waste spill in 2016 that left thousands without work in three coastal provinces. [Radio Free Asia]

29 September 2020

Vietnam: Twenty convicted over terrorism charges 

(jn) A court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced 20 people to prison terms ranging from two to 24 years on terrorism charges over their involvement in the bombing of a police station in the city two years ago. The court convicted seventeen of the group for acts of terrorism, and three for illegally using explosives, after all of the 20 accused had pleaded guilty in the two-day trial. The trial comes amid a series of arrests of journalists, bloggers, and other dissidents as authorities already intolerant of dissent seek to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January 2021. Only two weeks ago, a court in Hanoi had handed down two death sentences in a trial over a deadly land-rights clash [cf. AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3]. A Facebook user was recently arrested for sharing his grievances about how the local government had handled a dispute over his family’s land. [Reuters] [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

29 September 2020

Vietnam: New mayor of Hanoi appointed

(jn) Minister of Science and Technology Chu Ngoc Anh was elected as the new chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee at an extraordinary meeting of the municipal People’s Council on September 25 with unanimous consent. [Hanoi Times]

29 September 2020

US Congressman “adopts” jailed Vietnamese journalist as prisoner of conscience 

(jn) U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) announced on Friday that he had officially adopted Vietnamese journalist Nguyen Van Hoa of Radio Free Asia, imprisoned for seven years in Vietnam, as a prisoner of conscience under the Defending Freedoms Project.

Under the project, U.S. members of Congress work to raise awareness of the cases of their adopted prisoners, advocating for their freedom or for a reduction in their sentences, and calling attention to the laws or state policies that led to their unjust imprisonment. [Radio Free Asia]

29 September 2020

US and Vietnam met for 11th Political, Security and Defense Dialogue

(jn) Vietnamese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Minh Vu and US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper met virtually on September 23 to discuss bilateral security cooperation at the eleventh US-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue. According to the US Department of State, the talks aimed at fostering the robust and growing bilateral relationship between the two countries and their shared commitment to a free, open, and independent Indo-Pacific region.

Topics discussed included security cooperation and defense trade; maritime security; peacekeeping; promoting international Women, Peace, and Security efforts; and humanitarian issues, including POW/MIA recovery and clearance of legacy unexploded munitions. [US Department of State Media Note]

29 September 2020

Vietnam to return missing US soldier’s remains

(jn) Vietnam is about to return remains suspected to belong to a missing American soldier from the Vietnam War to the US for whom a repatriation ceremony at the Military Forensic Institute was held in Hanoi on Thursday.

The search for missing U.S. soldiers’ remains from the Vietnam War has been since 1988, while an estimated 1,200 Americans are still unaccounted for. [Vietnam Express]

29 September 2020

Vietnamese President addresses UN General Assembly

(jn) Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc gave remarks to the UN High-Level Meeting marking the virtual 75th anniversary of the UN in New York as part of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly last week. He hailed the UN’s achievements for peace in the world noting that “the COVID-19 pandemic, together with instabilities, conflicts, great power competition, power politics, and climate change are threatening the sustainable peace and development of nations.” He stressed the need to work together in solidarity and strengthen multilateralism with the UN at its core with the strict implementation of the UN Charter and international law, along with respect for independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the states. [Vietnam News]

29 September 2020

Philippines: Western powers will remain in South China Sea

(nd) Despite efforts of Southeast Asian nations to draft a Code of Conduct (CoC) in conjunction with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin reassured this will not result in Western powers kept away from the disputed waters.

Tensions between the US and China, inter alia in the South China Sea, are on the rise and were last voiced prominently during recent ASEAN meeting [See also AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3] [Bangkok Post]

22 September 2020

Vietnam: From garment industry to mask production

(jn) The coronavirus pandemic hitting Vietnam as the world’s third largest textile exporting economy especially hard has led to a change in business strategies in the country’s garment industry. After garment and textile exports fell almost 12% in the year through August versus the same period in 2019, the trade ministry has now said Vietnam must become the “world’s face mask factory.” With less demand for clothing, at least 50 companies are producing surgical masks, or plan to do so, according to the trade ministry. [Nikkei Asian Review]


22 September 2020

Vietnam sentences seven for role in human trafficking scandal 

(jn) Last Monday, a Vietnamese court sentenced seven people to up to seven and a half years in prison for smuggling a woman who later died in a truck together with 38 other people as they were being transported into Britain. The seven defendants were found guilty of “organizing and brokering” illegal immigration by a provincial court in central Vietnam. [AP] [South China Morning Post]


22 September 2020

Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic

(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”

The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]


22 September 2020

Vietnam indignant over US embassy’s editing of country map

(jn) Vietnam has reaffirmed its claim over the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea, after the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi edited the islands out of a map of Vietnam that it had posted on its Facebook page for a recent diplomatic event. The foreign ministry said that Vietnam has always considered the Paracel and Spratly Islands as inseparable parts of the Vietnamese territory and has said so in many international forums. The island chains with their resource-rich waters are a controversial subject in the South China Sea dispute between China and Vietnam.

After having first uploaded a map of Vietnam that also showed the island groups in a Facebook post on September 9 commemorating the start of the 53rd ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting that day, the embassy later edited the post and replaced the original map with a version without the islands.

Officially, the US does not recognize the unilateral sovereignty of any claimant country over the Spratly and Paracel Islands – a position that was also reiterated in a statement by the embassy. [Radio Free Asia] [VN Express]

22 September 2020

Vietnamese Prime Minister meets South Korean Foreign Minister 

(jn) In a bilateral meeting with Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Thursday, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc urged his counterpart that the Republic of Korea (RoK) reduce or remove binding conditions for development aid, and said he hoped that the RoK increase the reception of Vietnamese workers and pay more attention to the Vietnamese community in their country. Both leaders also spoke about stepping up efforts to achieve the goal of raising the bilateral trade volume to $100 billion. Vietnam has already reopened commercial routes and flight routes to a number of countries and regions, including South Korea. 

Ms. Kang is the first foreign minister to visit Vietnam since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. [Vietnam News 1] [Vietnam News 2]

22 September 2020

German and Vietnamese leaders talked on anniversary of 45 years of diplomatic ties between the countries

(jn) German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had a phone conversation on Tuesday to mark the 45th year of diplomatic ties between their two countries during which Ms. Merkel highlighted the new Indo-Pacific strategy of the German government. She said she hopes that Vietnam will serve as a bridge to connect Germany with the Indo-Pacific and together with Mr. Xuan Phuc stressed the importance of settling disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means and on the basis of international law. [Vietnam News]

22 September 2020

Laos considers easing immigration policy for China and Vietnam 

(py) According to Lao Phattana Daily, a local news source, the fast-track immigration policy refers to bilateral legislation between Vietnam and China that would allow certain privileges such as a waiver for the 14-day quarantine for individuals including diplomatic personnel, technical experts and foreign labor for special projects.  [Laotian Times]  

Though Laos has been having the pandemic under control with the last confirmed case reported on 14 August and a total of 22 confirmed cases since the breakout, many fear a second wave could be on the verge with illegal entries to the country. [WHO


22 September 2020

Philippines: Lawsuit against China over South China Sea

(nd) Retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio will legally support the team suing Chinese president Xi Jinping for crimes against humanity for illegal incursions in the South China Sea. The lawsuit was filed by Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales in March 2019 before the International Criminal Court (ICC) over near permanent destruction in the West Philippine Sea claimed by the Philippines as its exclusive economic zone. The ICC stated the case might not be within its jurisdiction. However, del Rosario emphasized the described act were not only within their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but also within Filipino territory. Additionally, they cited the ramming and sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in June 2019 that occurred within their EEZ. [Daily Express] 

15 September 2020

ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis

(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]

China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.

In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]

In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]

In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]

Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”

Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]

15 September 2020

Vietnam: Death sentences handed down despite torture allegations in Dong Tam trial

(jn) A court in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi on Monday sentenced two defendants to death, also handing down a life sentence amid other sentences, in the trial of 29 villagers over a deadly land-rights clash in January at the Dong Tam commune. 

The group faced charges of murder and obstruction for what prosecutors say was their role in a violent showdown over land rights when 3.000 security officers were deployed in a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site south of the capital that left three police officers and a protest leader dead.

Last week, nineteen defendants of the group had testified that they had been tortured by the police during interrogations following their arrest over the clash, with one saying he had been beaten with a rubber club for ten consecutive days. [Radio Free Asia 1[Radio Free Asia 2]


15 September 2020

Vietnam: Death sentences handed down despite torture allegations in Dong Tam trial

(jn) A court in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi on Monday sentenced two defendants to death, also handing down a life sentence amid other sentences, in the trial of 29 villagers over a deadly land-rights clash in January at the Dong Tam commune. 

The group faced charges of murder and obstruction for what prosecutors say was their role in a violent showdown over land rights when 3.000 security officers were deployed in a long-running dispute over a military airport construction site south of the capital that left three police officers and a protest leader dead.

Last week, nineteen defendants of the group had testified that they had been tortured by the police during interrogations following their arrest over the clash, with one saying he had been beaten with a rubber club for ten consecutive days. [Radio Free Asia 1[Radio Free Asia 2]


15 September 2020

Vietnam: U.S., Mekong ministers meet amid latest rivalry with China 

(jn) U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and foreign ministers from five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River held the first Mekong-U.S.-Partnership Ministerial Meeting on Friday, discussing ways to deepen their partnership amid the latest frictions with China over the 4,350-kilometer river. Mr. Biegun announced $153 million in US funds for the region, among other things $55 million for the purpose of combating transboundary crime and $1.8 million to support data sharing on Mekong River water resources.

During the group’s inaugural meeting, Mr. Biegun claimed that the current drought suffered in the Mekong downstream area during the past two years has been caused by China that has built 11 dams in the upstream area. A report published in April by the U.S.-based Eyes on Earth shows that China’s upstream dams have been holding back 47 billion cubic meters of water, likely being the cause for severely disrupting a river that feeds more than 60 million people. [Kyodo News] [Nikkei Asian Review]


8 September 2020

Vietnam, Thailand to expand cooperation

(nd) On a virtual talk, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai have agreed upon efforts to enhance their strategic partnership until 2025. Each side declared to facilitate investments as well as the entry of laborers, planning to sign a new labor agreement, in an effort to raise bilateral trade to $ 20 million per year. Other areas of cooperation shall be education, tourism, culture and people-to-people exchange. In 2021 they will celebrate 45 years of diplomatic ties. [Vietnam News]

8 September 2020

Vietnam: Celebration of Vietnam’s National Day reveals old and new friends

(nd) To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vietnam’s National Day on September 2, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, lit up in the Vietnamese flag.

Both countries have strong economic links, Vietnam being UAE’s biggest commercial partner in the Middle East, and Vietnam considered as the UAE’s foremost gateway to access the ASEAN market, with a joint aim to increase their bilateral trade turnover to $10 billion in the coming years. [Vietnam Express] Meanwhile, media outlets in Cuba and Russia honored Vietnam’s National day [Voice of Vietnam World], as well as numerous political officials, especially highlighting and praising the role as ASEAN Chair 2020, and emphasizing strengthening bilateral relations, not only with regards to Covid-19 mitigation measures.[Vietnam News]

8 September 2020

Vietnam and Japan are deepening business ties

(nd) While Japan grants Vietnam US $ 19 million of non-refundable aid for the fight against Covid-19. [Hanoi Times 1], Japanese investments are rising in wake of the shift of regional and global supply chains with a several Japanese firms seemingly considering to move production facilities to Vietnam. The countries also want to resume air travels between them. [Vietnam News]

Vietnam is one of the beneficiaries of the Japanese “China plus 1” strategy to diversify supply chains into other countries than solely China due to rising production costs and trade tensions between China and the US. To improve competitiveness, the Vietnamese government’s development strategy focuses on creating a suitable legal framework, infrastructure and invests in human resources. [Hanoi Times 2][ Hanoi Times 3]

In October, the third annual Indo-Pacific Business Forum (IPBF) will take place in Hanoi. The first edition of the format was held in Washington D.C. in July 2018, the second in Bangkok in November 2019. The forum is part of US efforts to improve geopolitical and economic presence in the region. [Hanoi Times 4]

For prospects of Vietnam-Japan relations at large in the post-Abe time, see Phuong Pham at [Asia Times] who predicts that – on the basis of Abe’s legacy of strong Tokyo-Hanoi relations – both countries “extensive strategic partnership will still thrive in the future.”

1 September 2020

China, Southeast Asian leaders meet to discuss the Mekong`s plight

(lm) At a time when the Mekong River’s health is in dire straits, leaders from China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam gathered on Monday for a virtual summit, the third leader’s meeting for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform. During the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqian promised that Beijing would henceforth share the Lancang River’s hydrological data with the Lower Mekong countries. [The Diplomat]

Established in 2016, the LMC is a sub-regional cooperation mechanism that brings together the riparian countries of the vital waterway, which begins in China as the Lancang then traverses Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For a second year in a row, the Mekong River is at a record low, with water levels across the Lower Mekong Basin down by two-thirds and rainfall for the three months of the current monsoon also down by about 70 percent.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Beijing has since constructed 11 giant dams along the mountainous territory of the Upper Mekong to sustain its ever-increasing energy needs. In April this year, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – representing Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – refuted a previously published US-funded report that had accused China of deliberately holding back water, significantly contributing to the major drought impacting the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Despite denying the allegations, however, the MRC did call on China for greater transparency in its water data.

In March this year, five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region had declared a state of emergency in face of continued extreme drought and salinity. A result of lobbying from international NGOs and internal reporting, shortly thereafter, the Cambodian government announced a decade-long dam moratorium on the mainstream of the river. The Cambodian moratorium leaves Laos, which commissioned two major dams in 2019, as the only Lower Mekong country pursuing hydropower on the mainstream of the river. [AiR No. 12, March/2020, 4] [AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]

Beyond the Lancang/Mekong River`s plight, leaders on Monday also talked about strengthening their cooperation on public health, food supply chains, and a post-COVID-19 recovery of the region’s tourism industry. [TTR Weekly]

25 August 2020

Thailand arrests Vietnamese fishermen, confiscates their boats

(jn) Thai authorities have arrested 36 Vietnamese fishermen and confiscated their four boats on suspicion of poaching in Thailand’s exclusive economic zone. The arrests came two days after Malaysia’s coast guard had shot and killed a Vietnamese fishing boat crew member during a South China Sea confrontation, and weeks after Indonesian authorities had detained three Vietnamese boats for alleged poaching. [Radio Free Asia] [AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]

25 August 2020

Cross-strait relations: Beijing’s military muscle flexing in the South China Sea (Vietnam+Philippines)

(dql/ef) China is concurrently conducting four military exercises in various coastal regions in this week amid high tensions with the US and Asian countries over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Among them are drills in the Taiwan Strait which – according to statements of the Chinese military – are held in the South China Sea in express response to recent US military activities in the Taiwan Strait and aimed to deter separatist forces in Taiwan and the USA. [Global Times][Radio Free Asia]

The drills are the latest in an almost consecutive series of military activities of the People’s Liberation Army in the South China over the past months accompanied by aggressive rhetoric, further pushing speculations about Beijing preparing for re-unification by force. The speculations have been reinforced by the former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former acting CIA director under President Obama who argued that China’s invasion of Taiwan could happen as soon as next year and warned that China would be capable of seizing Taiwan in three days and that the USA would be too paralyzed by political turmoil to stop it. [Forbes]

In this light Robert Kagan at [Brookings] assumes that China – seeing that economic and diplomatic pressure have not yielded the goal of re-unification – might opt for a military takeover of Taiwan, and raises the question whether in such a case the USA would respond, adding that “American policies in the two decades before World War II were shaped by what in retrospect looks like a stunning naïveté about other nations’ willingness to resort to force. One wonders if we are any less naive today”. 

The drills come after the de facto U.S. ambassador in Taiwan attended on Sunday for the first time a ceremony commemorating a key military clash between Chinese and Taiwanese forces back in 1958, a highly symbolic move reflecting currently deepening US-Taiwan relations while worsening already frosty US-China/cross-strait relations. [Focus Taiwan]

25 August 2020

Vietnam to buy Russian Covid-19 vaccine

(ls) Vietnam has announced that it will buy 50 million to 150 million doses of the newly developed Russian Covid-19 vaccine while also continuing the development of an own vaccine. In addition, it will buy vaccines from the United Kingdom. [Chiang Rai Times]

The development merits a closer look at Russia’s relations with Southeast Asia over the course of recent years. The country has intensified its efforts to build stronger ties with East and Southeast Asia in political, economic and defense terms, both bilaterally and multilaterally. In 2011, Russia became a member of the East Asia Summit, alongside the U.S. From a Southeast Asian perspective, ties with Russia are largely seen as part of a strategy to counter-balance Chinese and American influence in the region. Russia, for its part, also sees economic opportunities, for example with regard to oil explorations in the South China Sea. The Observer Research Foundation has published a concise analysis of Russian-Southeast Asian relations since 2014. [Observer Research Foundation]

25 August 2020

Vietnam and Philippines push back against Chinese claims in South China Sea

(jn/ls) Vietnam’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that the presence of Chinese bombers on the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea would jeopardize peace in the region and violate Vietnam’s sovereignty. China has boosted its presence in disputed parts of the strategic waterway in recent months and conducted exercises, further heightening tensions in the longstanding conflict at a time when other claimants are battling coronavirus outbreaks. Only recently, intense Chinese pressure had led to cancellations of drilling contracts of Vietnamese companies with international corporations. [South China Morning Post 1] [AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]

The Philippines’ Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused Beijing of illegally occupying Filipino maritime territory surrounding the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. The Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a diplomatic protest. In addition, Lorenzana said that China’s nine-dash line used to claim most of the South China Sea is a fabrication. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague did not recognize the nine-dash-line under international law. [PhilStar] [Inquirer]

Possibly also having this precedent in mind, Vietnam submitted a list of nominated arbitrators to the U.N. Secretary General earlier in May. For the first time in the history of the country, a foreign international law expert was among the nominated persons, a professor from the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law. Moreover, in November last year, a Vietnamese diplomat announced that his country was considering to bring China to arbitral court over Chinese intrusions into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in particular the oil-rich Vanguard Bank. [VERA Files]

However, China argues that ASEAN claimants are bound by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which requires them to settle the dispute bilaterally rather than through multilateral bodies such as the U.N. However, as the sea dispute is becoming a proxy arena for the strategic battle between China and the U.S., Southeast Asian countries may feel emboldened to take legal action. [South China Morning Post 2]

In June, Singapore and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) signed a model agreement recognizing the city-state as an alternative seat for the tribunal. [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]

18 August 2020

Vietnam, Laos agree to enhance ties

(dql) During phone talks held last week Vietnamese Party General Secretary and State President Nguyen Phu Trong and his Laotian counterpart agreed to further enhance relations between both countries and to  continue timely information sharing, close and effective coordination, as well as mutual support in international and regional affairs, in particular within the frameworks of ASEAN, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and Mekong sub-region cooperation mechanisms. [The Star]

18 August 2020

Vietnam: Seeking EU investment in medial and drug supply chain 

(dql) Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest conglomerate focusing on real estate development, retail, and services ranging from healthcare to hospitality, last week announced that it has concluded a partnership with Ireland-based medical device company Medtronic to produce components in Vietnam.

The move reflects Vietnam’s efforts to build on its new free trade agreement with the European Union to expand foreign investment in medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, positioning itself as an alternative production base to China.

The deal accords also with the country’s push for local manufacturers to expand into medical products as part of Hanoi’s measure to recover the pandemic-hit economy. [Nikkei Asian Review]

Meanwhile, since 1 August EU exports to Vietnam are taxed less, as immediate effect of the entry into force of the EU-Vietnam trade agreement that will ultimately scrap duties on 99% of all goods traded between the two sides. It has also become easier for European companies to do business in Vietnam as it is now possible for them to invest and pitch for government contracts with equal chances to their local competitors. [European Commission]

18 August 2020

Malaysia/Vietnam South China Sea clash: Malaysia coast guard kills Vietnamese fisherman 

(lm) A Vietnamese fisherman died from gunshot wounds he obtained in a confrontation in waters off the northeastern state of Kelantan a day earlier. According to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, the incident took place after coast guards sought to inspect two boats they believed were illegally fishing.

Ignoring warning shots, the Vietnamese fishermen started to pelt the patrol vessel with flammable items, before eventually ramming it, causing the coast guard officers to respond by firing in claimed self-defense, causing the fatal wound of the fisherman who later died. The two Vietnamese boats with the remaining 20 crew members were towed to the enforcement ship. [Bangkok Post] [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]

In February, Malaysia had announced plans to secure a deal with Vietnam to combat intrusions of Vietnamese deep-sea fishermen into Malaysian waters. In 2019, 141 Vietnamese fishermen had been detained for encroaching into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone. [AiR No. 7, February/2020, 3]

11 August 2020

Vietnam still racing to contain coronavirus resurgence 

(jn) With almost 850 cases of Covid-19 and 15 deaths as of Monday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc warned that the risk of widespread Covid-19 infections was very high and that further efforts of the government and society were necessary to contain the spread. Fast and accurate testing would be key to prevent a full-blown second wave from fully hitting the country. A new makeshift hospital in a Danang stadium was supposed to be operational as of Saturday as an overflow capacity that could provide for up to 1000 patients if local hospitals were to be overwhelmed [Vietnamese Ministry of Health] [Channel News Asia[The New York Times] [The Straits Times]

The country has also continued its crackdown on illegal border crossings, mostly by Chinese citizens who are reportedly skirting official checkpoints in their search for work in Vietnam. [South China Morning Post] [Nikkei Asian Review]

In a new outbreak, the coronavirus had resurfaced in the city of Danang which lead the government to reinstate restrictions and social distancing measures in the affected places [AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1]. Swift and sweeping measures taken in the first quarter of the year had first lead to a successful containment and control of the virus [AiR No. 17, April/2020, 4].

11 August 2020

Asian countries protesting, cooperating over Chinese posture in South China Sea

(ls) Vietnam is going to purchase six patrol boats from Japan to boost its Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement capabilities. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed a $345 million loan agreement with the Vietnamese government at the end of July. It is the first deal of this kind between the two countries as Japan had previously only sold fishing vessels to Vietnam.

The deal comes at a time when Vietnam has been at odds with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a corresponding statement, JICA said the project would contribute to “the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, a term that has initially been coined by the United States. The development demonstrates Vietnam’s increasing alignment with the United States and its ally Japan in defense of its interests against China. [Japan Times]

JICA has already signed similar agreements for the construction of patrol ships and boats with the Philippine Coast Guard under the joint Japanese-Philippine Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project (MSCIP) program. [Naval News]

Meanwhile, the Philippine navy chief has called for a diplomatic protest against the presence of two Chinese research ships in a disputed area surrounding the Reed Bank. The Reed Bank is an energy-rich area of the South China Sea that the Philippines claims within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This claim was essentially confirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016. China, however, does not recognize the ruling. [South China Morning Post]

In a related development, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said after a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully based on universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on The Law of The Sea (UNCLOS). However, he also emphasized that Malaysia should not be caught up in the geopolitics of superpowers, emphasizing the need to maintain good relations with all sides. [Malay Mail] [Benar News]

Malaysia submitted a note verbale to the United Nations on 29 July, rejecting China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea “encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘ninedash line’”. [United Nations]

4 August 2020

USA pledges support to Vietnam in agreement on South China Sea

(jn) The United States and Vietnam have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on July 22 in which Washington, among other things, seeks to share expertise and technical assistance on sea patrolling, and to cooperate with Vietnam and international law enforcement agencies to combat illegal fishing and intimidation. Experts see the MoU as a sign of a toughened U.S. stance against Beijing’s geopolitical aspirations in the South China Sea even though China was not explicitly mentioned. However, the impact of the MoU remains to be seen as Vietnam is still treading a fine line between emphatically asserting its sovereignty under intentional law in the South China Sea while at the same trying to not overly antagonize Beijing, let alone to get onto a slippery slope towards armed conflict. Likewise, analysts assess U.S. options to be limited by practical constraints and by its own choosing; the U.S. will signal Beijing that it is keeping a close eye on events in the area, boosting Vietnam politically through agreements like the one at hand, while also continuing its freedom of navigation exercises for the time being. 

With regards to Vietnam, the country is still weighing whether to bring suit against China’s encroachment in the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, as did the Philippines successfully in 2016. [South China Morning Post]

4 August 2020

Vietnam scrambles to contain COVID-19 spread, reporting first deaths and facing second wave

(jn) Vietnam reported more than 640 coronavirus infections and six deaths as of Monday after almost two weeks of spiking cases across the country, the origin and epicenter being the central city of Danang, a tourism hub. The town confirmed the first domestically transmitted cases in 100 days nationwide on July 24, after which the virus spread to at least ten places, including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. 

The rapid resurgence of the coronavirus left authorities scrambling for a response, triggering multiple measures including lockdowns and quarantines [see AiR No. 30 July/2020, 4], but also mass-scale testing which the government announced on Saturday would also cover Danang’s entire population of 1.1 million people. [Vietnam Ministry of Health] [Straits Times]

To make matters worse, health authorities said that the Covid-19 strain detected in Danang appears to be more contagious than older versions. The infection rate is at about five to six people compared to the previously known strain that accounted for 1.8 to 2.2 people. An infection rate indicates how many people contract the virus in a certain time span after having been in close contact with an infected person. 23 per cent of the latest infections are reported to be asymptomatic.

In an online conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he preferred targeted social distancing measures as opposed to another nationwide lockdown. This stance reflects that Vietnam can hardly afford to put the economy into an artificial coma again since the first already diminished government revenue and severely cut economic growth for this year, according to experts. Of all economic sectors, the tourism industry has been especially hit hard, with the number of foreign tourists dropping more than two thirds this spring compared to last year. The government had lifted virtually all domestic restrictions at the beginning of last month eyeing to revive a sluggish economy, however, this will now have to be reversed at least in part.

Phuc also said on Monday that early August would be the “decisive” time to stop the virus from spreading on a large scale, and that the new outbreak could have a more “critical impact” than the original one.

Local analysts also speculate that the Communist Party convention in January 2021, where all major party and government positions will be selected for the next five years, could be postponed [see also AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Straits Times 2] [The Diplomat] [Asia Times]

28 July 2020

Vietnam: New local Covid-19 cases, triggering evacuations and border control

(jn) After four infections with the Coronavirus were confirmed in the Vietnamese city of Danang over the weekend, authorities imposed stay-at-home-orders, mass-evacuations and tighter border controls. The government under Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc reacted quickly to the news of the – still minor – outbreak and revived a directive first imposed in March only allowing residents to leave their homes for essential needs, banning public gatherings of more than two people and ordering them to socially distance.

The first cases after more than three months and a remarkably successful infection control [see AiR No. 17, April/2020, 4] rattled the country and caused the government to evacuate 80,000 people of mostly domestic tourists from Danang and start testing of 10,000 residents. [Bangkok Post] [Straits Times]

Phuc also asked local authorities to tighten border controls echoing concerns in both mainstream and social media about Chinese immigrants who are reportedly entering Vietnam illegally through its northern border on a regular basis in search of work.

Vietnam had about 431 Covid-19 infections with zero deaths as of Sunday. [Nikkei Asian Review]

28 July 2020

Chinese influence on Vietnam’s economy amid South China Sea tensions

(jn) Tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea dispute notwithstanding, the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has approved a loan of $100 million to Hanoi-based commercial VP Bank last week. According to the AIIB, the money is meant to help the Vietnamese economy recover from pandemic-related woes, especially propping up small and medium-sized businesses.

Experts see the loan as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the large-scale development strategy that it is pursuing worldwide to expand its economic reach and gain geopolitical clout. Given the relatively frosty relationship between both countries, the loan was not so much a breakthrough for the BRI in Vietnam than an “olive branch” extended to Hanoi as it weighs new steps in countering China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asian Review]

In another instance, it has now become public that the government-owned energy company PetroVietnam is liable to pay compensation of around one billion dollars to international oil companies, the Spanish company Repsol and UAE-based Mubadala. The financial obligations are a result of the Vietnamese leadership ordering the cancellation of drilling contracts on oil fields in the South China Sea in reaction to intense pressure from China. PetroVietnam had ordered Repsol to stop drilling operations in 2017 and 2018 in two blocks of seabed after China had flexed its naval muscles in a large-scale exercise off Hainan island [see AiR No. 13, April/2018, 1]

This month, Chinese pressure led to the cancellation of another contract for a new oil rig for the Russian company Rosneft that had waited in a Vietnamese port until now. A Chinese coast guard ship was spotted circling the predecessor platform at the Russian site, which surprised observers who expected China to be more reluctant to antagonize Moscow. [The Diplomat]

Analysts assess Vietnam’s options in the South China Sea dispute to be rather limited, especially in the case of armed conflict. China’s military capabilities seriously dwarf Vietnam’s, even giving Beijing the opportunity of a mere “warm-up fight” in the South China Sea, the real adversary for China being the US. Vietnam would, according to experts, stick to diplomacy as long as possible to uphold the status quo. 

It is still unclear whether Vietnam’s strategic deck of cards has really been improved by the newly outspoken and hardened US position on China’s encroachment in the South China Sea: The US has still to prove that it would live up to its commitments to international law and the sovereignty of states in the region when push comes to shove, and the superpower is not the military ally (yet) that Vietnam could rely on for plotting its future course. [Asia Times]

21 July 2020

Vietnam reacts to hardened US stance on South China Sea dispute

(jn) Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry welcomed any views in accordance with international law on the South China Sea, and that “respecting the legal order at the sea and implementing [the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] in full and with good faith” was crucial. The statement came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had told reporters that the US would support countries around the globe which believe their legal territorial or maritime claims were violated by China, though the US would do so by pursuing diplomatic means, such as in multilateral bodies like ASEAN. [South China Morning Post]

Despite the rhetoric, Beijing is seen as carefully navigating its relationship with Vietnam for the moment instead of reciprocating in kind.

The Deputy Foreign Ministers of China and Vietnam held a video meeting in their respective functions as General Secretaries of the Steering Committee for Vietnam-China Bilateral Cooperation last Thursday, discussing the South China Sea dispute among other things. Details of the conversation were not provided. In the same week, the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) announced that it would lend $100 million to a Vietnamese bank to prop up its lending to private businesses suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, Vietnam appears to have cancelled a contract with an oil rig off its coast near the Vanguard Bank, a reef near the Spratly Islands within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and payed compensation to the parent company. One year ago, the Vanguard Bank became the place where Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard ships met in a tense and prolonged stand-off (see AiR No. 29, July/2019, 3). Hanoi did not publicly comment on rescinding the contract, but it comes at a time when China has increased its incursions into Vietnamese waters, deploying a China Coast Guard vessel to the Vanguard Bank last recently and a survey vessel into Vietnam’s EEZ in June.

According to experts, Vietnam may feel emboldened by the vocal and assertive US positioning and increasing US military presence in the region. Even though the Chinese and Vietnamese economies are very much intertwined with Vietnam having a significant trade deficit, the South China Sea dispute is the decisive factor for the country’s geopolitical alignment against China (see also last week’s AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2). [South China Morning Post 2] [Nhan Dan] [Radio Free Asia]

14 July 2020

Vietnam’s continued crackdown on online activists 

(jn) A Vietnamese court has sentenced pro-democracy activist Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong to eight years in prison on criminal charges of “disseminating information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. It is believed to be the longest ever prison term for posting content on social media. Before his arrest in 2019, Nguyen had decried the corruption and autocracy of the ruling Communist Party in an online livestream. He had also touched on land confiscation cases, political prisoners, and his support for protests in Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch condemned the sentence as outrageous while the US state department voiced concern noting: “the lengthy sentence is another in a number of troubling arrests and sentences of journalists, bloggers, and activists aimed at denying freedom of speech in Vietnam.”

Radio Free Asia has counted about a dozen recent cases in which activists or ordinary citizens were prosecuted for their activities on Facebook [see also AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1]. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Channel News Asia]

In another case, journalist and author Pham Doan Trang said she would quit working for “Liberal Publishing House”, an independent and dissident publisher of books, because of the intense harassment by the police over her work and the abduction and abuse of colleagues. [Radio Free Asia 2]

14 July 2020

US and Vietnam celebrating 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties

(jn) On the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam, leaders of both countries exchanged congratulatory notes, vowing to further strengthen their ties in the future. 

President Donald Trump wrote in a letter to Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong on Saturday that the US was committed to enhancing and expanding the bilateral ties based on a shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific and respect for each other’s sovereignty and regulations. 

In his own congratulatory letter to the US, President Trong said that US-Vietnam relations throughout the last 25 years had “surpassed differences and geography” to develop positively and stably, making the US Vietnam’s leading partner in various areas.

After the Vietnam War, during which up to 3.8 million Vietnamese people and almost 50,000 US soldiers perished, Washington maintained sanctions against the unified, communist-led country well into the 1980s.

The normalization of US-Vietnam relations was phased in during the early 1990s, starting in 1991 with a roadmap plan presented by the Bush administration that included opening a US office in Hanoi on “Missed in Action” (MIA) issues. Bush’s successor Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and on July 11, 1995, he announced the normalization with Vietnam. Shortly after, then Vietnamese Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt followed by declaring diplomatic relations to be established and a new chapter to be opened. In 2000, both sides signed a bilateral trade agreement (BTA).

In recent years, both nations have experienced a growing trade relationship and have expanded their military ties, establishing a Comprehensive Partnership in 2013. The US lifted its arms embargo in 2016.

The US is Vietnam’s second largest trading partner after China. Despite the pandemic, trade increased by almost 8% in the first five months of the year compared to the same period last year. Experts see this as a trend only to grow in the coming years as American firms are eyeing Vietnam as an alternative haven for investment in light of Washington seeking to “decouple” supply chains from China.

However, the major reason for both Vietnam and the US striving for reconciliation is owing to Vietnam’s ever-increasing geopolitical tensions with China, in particular over territorial claims in the South China Sea [see e.g. AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. The US serves as the alternative superpower that Vietnam can turn to and that has even proclaimed itself a defender of the international rule-based order and freedom of navigation in the region. 

As a sign of this development, only in March a US aircraft carrier docked in Vietnam for the second time in recent years [see AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]. At the same time, Congress is weighing the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative that could send almost $7 billion in military spending to US allies in Asia, including Vietnam.

Vietnam might upgrade its relationship with the US to a Strategic Partnership or Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership in the coming years, experts estimate.

Although China continues to enjoy a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership with Vietnam, Sino-Vietnamese relations have constantly deteriorated. At the same time, Vietnam has become that ASEAN country in recent years that showed the most unequivocal signs of a strategic rapprochement with the US accompanied with closer relations to other Quad-nations as well. 

Still, the overall picture of the strategic triangle might change, US-Vietnamese relations be tested if the US foreign policy would turn to a more value prone approach. Disputes about human rights and democracy would then become emblematic for the major challenge to bridge the difference between both countries’ disparate political systems. In parts, degree this lingering conflict potential has not flared up because of the American focus on China’s unbridled striving for power and abysmal human rights record. [Nhan Dan] [Philippine Daily Inquirer] [VN Express] [VN Express 2] [Asia Times]

7 July 2020

Vietnam sends diplomatic protest note to China over navy drills

(jn) Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has lodged a protest note with China to complain about the recent military drills in the South China Sea. Speaking at a regular briefing, the spokeswoman explained the step, saying that the drills would “seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty” and would “further complicate the situation”, as they “are detrimental to the relationship between China and ASEAN.” Having delivered the diplomatic note, Vietnam would now ask China to refrain from repeating similar actions in the South China Sea. The Philippines had also criticized the drills which like Vietnam lays claim to parts of the South China Sea according to the concept of Exclusive Economic Zones under to international maritime law. [Straits Times] [SCMP]

China had scheduled the exercises in waters near the Paracel Islands for five days starting last Wednesday. It asserts historical rights to over 80% of the South China Sea. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats in June and April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1]. China had called Vietnam’s maritime claims illegal and “doomed to fail.”





30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]





30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]





30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]




30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]





30 June 2020

Vietnam: Open and proactive communication strategy behind pandemic success

(dql) Vietnam is internationally celebrated for its success in containing the coronavirus pandemic, with 355 cases and no deaths. For Hong Kong Nguyen and Tung Manh Ho at [ISEAS], one major reason for the success lies in a proactive communication strategy of the government that was carried out from the beginning and applied through a multitude of communication platforms. The open communication facilitated “public understanding of and support for the government response, thereby facilitating effective government-citizen cooperation.”





23 June 2020

Vietnam to host virtual ASEAN summit on June 26

(jn) Under the theme “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN”, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will virtually meet on June 26 for the 36th annual summit. After the summit was postponed from April due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam originally proposed it to be held as an in-person event in Hanoi on June 27/28. An ASEAN representative explained that, “[h]owever, because the Covid-19 is still spreading in some member countries, for now the better format is a virtual meeting, so a common agreement was reached to hold the ASEAN Summit virtually on June 26.”

Issues on the agenda will range from the current situation and economic impact of the pandemic to the US-China rivalry, especially in the South China Sea, Korea, the crisis in Rakhine and the Mekong cooperation. Leaders are expected to adopt several action plans and key recommendations in connection with combating and mitigating the impact of Covid-19, especially a post-pandemic recovery plan. In this vein, they are going to decide how to operationalize the joint Covid-19 fund that was set up at the special summit in April to purchase medical supplies and support members in handling the pandemic, and how to strengthen regional cooperation on public health emergencies. [Bangkok Post] [Bangkok Post 2] [Bangkok Post 3]





16 June 2020

Vietnam decries collision of vessels, laying of undersea cables in South China Sea 

(jn/ls) According to Vietnamese state media, last week a Chinese ship chased and rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near Lincoln Island, a rock in the Paracel Islands’ waters occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam. Subsequently, the Chinese crew reportedly seized fish and equipment to the value of $21.000 and also mistreated the Vietnamese captain after he had refused to sign a document. The incident may be the first after the fishing moratorium “Flashing Sword 2020” had been unilaterally imposed by China for the South China Sea north of the 12thparallel last month. [AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1] [AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2]

The Philippines and Vietnam criticized the ban and vowed not to recognize it. The last such incident transpired on April 2 when a Vietnamese fishing vessel sunk in a confrontation with a Chinese coast guard ship [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

As another sign of unabated tensions between the two countries, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday protested against China’s undersea cable construction also near the Paracel Islands, calling it a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty. Vietnam also deployed a coastguard vessel to the equally disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to drive away Chinese maritime militia around a Vietnamese outpost. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

Meanwhile, the US Navy has currently three aircraft carriers patrolling in the “Indo-Pacific”, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircrafts. The presence of three carrier strike groups, the first in nearly three years, is unusual as they normally take turns throughout repair schedules, port visits, training or deployments to other parts of the world. [Business Insider] Chinese observers interviewed by the government-controlled Global Times called the deployment a “mere show of vanity”. [Global Times]





16 June 2020

Vietnam: Journalist charged with opposing the state

(ls) Police in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City have arrested a journalist and charged him with “spreading anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the country’s criminal code. According to government reports, he was detained in connection with an investigation against another journalist who is the president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam and who has been held in detention without trial since last November. [CPJ] [Vietnam Net]





9 June 2020

Vietnam: Jailed Australian democracy activist “disappeared” inside Vietnam’s prison system

(lm) Vietnamese-born Australian Chau Van Kham, who had been convicted of terrorism by a Vietnamese court is believed to have disappeared inside Vietnam’s prison system. After consular visits scheduled for the past four months were all scrubbed out of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, no one from his family or the Australian consulate has been allowed to see or speak with him since February. [The Guardian]

Chau Van Kham was arrested in January 2019 and in a controversial trial sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on anti-government charges over his membership of pro-democracy organisation Viet Tan. While being described by the United Nations as “a peaceful organization advocating for democratic reform”, the Viet Tan political movement was formally proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Vietnamese government in 2016. [The Guardian 2]





9 June 2020

Vietnam: Vietnamese parliament greenlights free trade agreement with EU 

(jn) The National Assembly on Monday ratified the European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), a deal that builds on trade agreements signed in Hanoi last June and approved by the European Parliament in February. The EVFTA, which is expected to take effect in July, will reduce or eliminate over 99% of tariffs on goods traded between the parties’ markets and commits Vietnam to standards for sustainable development, including improving its human rights record, and protecting labour rights. There is also a transition period in some areas of up to ten years. (AiR No. 21, May/2020, 4)

With Singapore being the only other member state of the Association of Southeast Asian nations holding a free-trade agreement with the EU, the EVFTA is expected to provide Vietnam with an edge over China’s growing economic power. The World Bank said last month that the trade agreement could increase the country’s GDP by 2.4 per cent and its exports by 12 per cent by 2030, lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and giving the economy a much-needed post-pandemic stimulus. [Reuters]




2 June 2020

Can Vietnam translate its Covid-19 success into political leverage?

(ls) Vietnam has been widely acclaimed for its successful management of the Covid-19 outbreak. Until today, official numbers do not show any single corona-related death. Early inbound travel restrictions at the beginning of February seemed to have been a vital element of Vietnam’s strategy. Toward the end of April, the government relaxed restrictions on people going out that had been in place for only about three weeks. In the capital, as well as Ho Chi Minh city, restaurants and street vendors started to reopen. [Asahi Shimbun]

The success provides the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam with a much-needed domestic legitimacy boost after a number of controversial issues, including the deadly clash between the government and civilians this year over a land dispute in Dong Tam as well as allegations of widespread corruption within the Party. And it may also increase the country’s prestige in the international arena as it offers a model for other countries in the region looking to contain the pandemic with limited resources. This all comes at a time when Vietnam is the current chair of ASEAN and a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. These fora can provide suitable platforms for increased crisis diplomacy. [East Asia Forum]



26 May 2020

Vietnam plans to abolish household registration books

(jk) The Ministry of Public Security is planning to abolish the paper-based version of household registration and will be using people’s ID numbers to register citizens electronically, creating an online database for all citizens with data shared across government agencies. Among the roadblocks to achieve the ambitious goal by December this year is the fact that currently only about one-fifth of Vietnamese have a personal ID number with about 80 million left to be issued. [Nhan Dan]



26 May 2020

Vietnam to vote on EU trade deal as it seeks to reposition itself in post Covid-19-economy

(jn) The National Assembly is scheduled to pass the European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EUVFTA) on Thursday, paving the way for unimpeded economic exchange between the markets of Vietnam and the EU while also establishing new labor and environmental standards for Vietnamese goods destined for the EU. Besides dropping virtually all tariffs, the trade agreement requires Vietnam to follow up with multiple ambitious reforms in its labor, environmental and investment laws. The deal comes at a convenient time for Vietnam as it seeks to jump-start its economy and position itself as an attractive harbor of foreign investment after it has successfully contained the outbreak of Covid-19 at home (AiR No. 17, April/2020, 4). [VoA]

However, Vietnam is still far from following China as the next workshop of the global economy, even as major powers like the US are seeking to “decouple” their economies at least in part from China to decrease their dependence. This is mostly owing to the much deeper economic resources and capabilities of China which Vietnam will not be able to make up even in the long-term: Its GDP (2018) is 55 times smaller, it has a fifteen times smaller manufacturing workforce and its biggest ports can only process a fraction of goods in comparison to China. In domestic terms, Vietnam ranks at the bottom of the list of countries’ GDP per capita, whereas China boasts one of the largest and fastest growing consumer markets. Increased trade with, and investment from, the US would also present a catch-22, namely a growing trade surplus for Vietnam which, however, is running counter to President Trump and his public crusade against trade deficits. [Asia Times]


19 May 2020

Vietnam: Leadership reshuffle as almost no new Covid-19 cases anymore

(jn) Vietnam has emerged considerably less marred from its fight against the pandemic than other Southeast Asian countries with officially a little over three hundred cases and no deaths, after almost a month without new community infections [see also Air No. 17, April/2020, 4]. [Channel News Asia]

A new analysis by [The Diplomat] sheds a particular light on how the crucial decision to implement a nationwide shutdown much earlier than any other country in the region – and much to China’s chagrin – was mostly owing to the deep-rooted distrust between the two countries. Despite very similar political systems and internal party structures, the two countries’ history is marked by conflicts, currently mainly the South China Sea dispute. Yet the geopolitical rivalry has not kept Vietnam and China from cooperating in their containment effort, especially because their deep economic ties leave them no other choice.

It is still open, however, whether Covid-19 will impact the upcoming 13th National Congress in January 2021 where the conservative and reformist camps within the Communist Party will vie for the top government positions and orientation. A hard clash between those sides is not expected though, since the reshuffle is usually agreed upon internally in advance and some observers see their differences rather as policy standpoints within a tightly knit party elite.

The conservative wing under Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who removed a reformist Prime Minister and main rival at the last Congress, has pushed a major anti-corruption policy and cracked down against non-ideological party officials while, on the other hand, continuing the reformist agenda of opening up the country economically and towards the US. 

It also remains to be seen whether the Party will return to its traditional power structure, i.e. the distribution of the “four pillars” – President, Prime Minister, Party General Secretary and chair of the National Assembly – among four different officeholders. In 2018, Trong became President despite simultaneously serving as General Secretary. He is expected to resign from the latter office after two terms but may continue as President. A faithful follower would be ready to step in and replace him but would have to face off with Prime Minister and reformist Nguyen Xuan Phuc. 

Finally, a (reformist) agenda will also hinge on the composition of the major party bodies, i.e. the Politburo, the Central Committee and the new cabinet that is chosen by the Prime Minister. A compromise candidate for that office could be economist and Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue, who is liberal on economic policy within the Party, yet personally close to President Trong. [Asia Times]

12 May 2020

The South China Sea II: Vietnam rejects China’s fishing ban as it weighs next steps 

(jk/jn) After China had imposed a fishing ban in the South China Sea from May 1 to August 16 [Asia in Review No. 18, May/2020, 1], the Vietnamese government repudiated this move as a “unilateral decision” and asked China “not to further complicate the situation in the South China Sea”. The foreign ministry pointed to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and historical and legal evidence to buttress Vietnam’s claims to sovereignty over maritime territory that includes Paracel and Spratly Islands. The PRC justified the annual fishing moratorium with the need for stock conservation. 

According to the Chinese coastguard “strictest measures” will be taken against any “illegal fishing activities”. Experts have already warned tensions could further flare up in the region since a possible pandemic-induced food crisis could prompt governments to increase their support and protection for their fisheries. It is worth remembering that just last month Vietnam had accused a Chinese surveillance ship of ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands that sank as a result, while China claimed the opposite. [Straits Times] [South China Morning Post]

Vietnam is also, once again, weighing whether to lodge a complaint with the permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over Beijing’s controversial claims to the South China Sea as a legal means to counter China’s aggressive actions. This approach, previously floated on ministerial level last year [Reuters], would follow the model of proceedings won by the Philippines who defeated China in the same court in July 2016. Even though the ruling said that China had no historical rights to the territory outlined by the so-called “nine-dash line”, China boycotted the proceedings and announced it would ignore the decision. 

After diplomatic efforts like firm protests and warnings have been to little avail so far, a judgment in favor of Hanoi’s position could strengthen its hand in the international arena where displeasure with China over its handling and disinformation regarding the Covid-19 outbreak has already been rife. It would help Vietnam to internationalize the dispute at a time when it is also chairing the ASEAN and is holding a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, even though substantive remedy cannot be expected in the latter body given China’s right to veto.  [Asia Times]

Other approaches to China’s encroachment on Vietnam’s territorial claims could encompass a halt to joint coast guard patrols, ending its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or downgrade China’s partnership status. Vietnam could also strengthen or even militarize the protection for its indianational fishing fleet which, however, would give rise to the risk of armed conflict in which Vietnam is seriously out-gunned. A potentially less hazardous approach is to continue to work the levers of international diplomacy and seeking to build alliances as with ASEAN and increasingly with the US to find a strong counterweight to China’s military might, possibly even including access to Vietnamese military facilities. [The Diplomat][The Diplomat 2]

12 May 2020

The South China Sea I: The new administrative zones and increasing military operations  

(jk) As reported, China has recently announced that it has established administrative districts in the South China Sea, to which the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry responded that the move “seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty” and that China should “abolish wrong decisions”. [Asia in Review No. 16, April/2020, 3] [Reuters]

The pronouncement, despite the “ridiculousness” of China’s “historic territorial claims” as evidenced for instance by the meticulous research work of British academic Bill Hayton [Twitter thread], is potentially more challenging than “the occasional maritime pressure campaign or military exercise” for it “aims to formalize China’s control, with permanent effects”, according to recent analysis by a Vietnamese scholar published at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. She further asserts that while she would not expect the international community to recognize these claims, it would already be a win for Beijing if there is none or only limited objection. She concludes that China clearly has “no intention whatsoever” to recognize international maritime law any time soon, or that it seriously wants to achieve a dispute management system through an ASEAN processes since its actions go “against the letter of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct and the spirit of the Code of Conduct that is being negotiated”. [AMTI]

In terms of pushback, even if not directly aimed at the issue of administrative zones but rather at the increased Chinese aggressions overall, the US Navy has for the second time in a month sent its ships specifically to an area in the South China Sea that is the scene of an ongoing dispute over resource rights between China and Malaysia, in addition to the regularly occurring Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). This was followed by US Pacific Fleet Commander clear statement that “[t]he Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.” [USNI News] The [South China Morning Post] reports in an article this week on the increased military operations by the United States in all waters close to China this year. 


5 May 2020

Analyses of recent South China Sea standoffs 

(ls) Several standoffs between Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and American ships in the South China Sea over the last weeks [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3] [No. 14, April/2020, 1] have shifted back the focus on this volatile region. Recent analyses evaluate the incidents and point to Southeast Asian countries’ situation of being caught up between major global powers with opposing interests while at the same time defending their own claims to territory and resources. [Foreign Policy] [The Diplomat]


5 May 2020

Philippines protests China’s ‘new’ districts in the South China Sea  

(dql) The Philippines last week lodged a strong protest against China’s establishment of the so-called Nansha and Xisha districts in the South China Sea put under the administration of China’s self-declared “Sansha City,” adding that China’s move “violate[s] Philippine territorial sovereignty.” [Rappler] [No. 16, April/2020, 3]

In a related development, fishermen’s associations in the Philippines and Vietnam protested China’s annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea, urging their respective governments to oppose it. The protests come after China last Friday announced its annual moratorium on fishing within waters it claims jurisdiction over, including waters down to the 12th parallel of the South China Sea, encompassing the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Different from previous years, China added that this year it would crack down on vessels violating the ban. China has previously abstained from arresting any fishermen from Vietnam and the Philippines, but have arrested Chinese fishing vessels for violating the ban. [Benar News] [Express]


5 May 2020

Vietnam cracks down on online dissidents 

(jn) In recent weeks Vietnam has jailed or sentenced Facebook users over unwanted postings on the network. Last week a man was given a prison sentence of 18 months for sharing a story on Facebook about the deadly Dong Tam protests in January that were directed against the construction of a military airport close Hanoi. He was found guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens”. In another case, Vietnamese authorities sentenced a 25-year-old Facebook user to a five-year prison term on charges of spreading propaganda against the state for his online postings. [RFA 1] [RFA 2]

Facebook itself was criticized two weeks ago by domestic and international rights activists after it publicly admitted it had helped censoring posts critical of the government. It also became public that Vietnamese authorities had pressurized the social media giant into aiding its censorship campaign by taking offline Facebook’s local servers earlier this year until the company gave in to the demands to remove posts. [RFA 3] [RFA 4]


28 April 2020

Cybersecurity firm: Vietnamese hackers have targeted Chinese government 

(jn) According to the cybersecurity firm FireEye a Vietnamese state-backed hacker group launched intrusion campaigns against authorities in Hubei province and the Chinese Ministry of Emergency Management in order to collect intelligence on the COVID-19 crisis. 

The attacks were carried out at least between January and April of this year by sending spear phishing messages and malicious attachments to personal and professional email accounts. The success of the operation is not clear as the Vietnamese government denies standing behind any such campaign and Chinese officials did not respond to press inquiries. [FireEye]

According to a senior cybersecurity expert with FireEye, the activities are an example of countries treating the virus as an intelligence priority, especially those bordering China, thus “throwing everything they’ve got at it” [South China Morning Post]. Another expert from the University of New South Wales attributes the readiness to carry out cyber-attacks against China to Vietnam’s own experience with cyber intrusions from Chinese actors in connection with the explosive territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Consequently, the country has stepped up its cyber capabilities (also for domestic use to quell the opposition) and made China its “largest intelligence collection target” [Bloomberg].


28 April 2020

Vietnam: Lockdown measures eased as COVID-19 numbers level off 

(jn) Vietnam’s government has announced last Wednesday that it would start lifting some of the restrictive measures it had taken in the fight against the spread of SARS-CoV-2. As of last Thursday, citizens were again permitted to use public transport on land and air even though they are still obliged to wear masks and do without larger public gatherings in a country where the borders continue to be mostly sealed. On Wednesday the Health Ministry said that Vietnam had carried out more than 180.000 tests and detected just about 270 cases, most of whom it said have recovered, and that none of them died. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Vietnam, until now there are no grounds to doubt the accuracy of the reported numbers.

A lone success story of coronavirus containment in the region, experts attribute this development to aggressive measures being adopted early on and a tightly run one-party state that has resorted to the vast resources and grassroots network of the extensive Communist Party apparatus to enforce and communicate social distancing measures and trace chains of infection [Straits Times] [Bangkok Post] [LA Times]

The country has also improved its disaster management after dealing with similar crises like SARS and H1N1, but also the severe 2016 marine life disaster [The Diplomat]. What is more, Vietnam has been especially mistrustful in dealing with official reports from China and did not leave anything to chance given its fraught relationship with this neighbor and its very own understanding of the inner workings of a similar political system. Thus, the country was one of the first to ban flights from mainland China just as COVID-19 cases had reached the double digits and quarantined whole villages. 

Having experienced such early relief in its own struggles with the pandemic, Vietnam has been able to donate masks and other personal protective equipment on a large scale to other countries around the globe. 

This kind of “coronavirus diplomacy” in combination with the loss reputation for China as the pandemic’s country of origin are poised to bear fruits for Vietnam’s quest to enhance its soft power, position itself as the next workshop for the global economy and seek allies in its tensions with China. The country is already exploring ways to navigate the international economic slump which is certain to leave its marks in the heavily export-oriented economy [Bloomberg][Asia Times].

 14 April 2020

ASEAN Foreign Ministers meet online and endorse plans for pandemic fund

(jk) In video meeting, led by current ASEAN Chair Vietnam, ministers endorsed several “collective steps to fight the pandemic”. These include a COVID-19 ASEAN response fund and information and strategy sharing, designed to “ease the impact of the global health crisis on people and the economy”, according to a statement by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. [Japan Today

Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister also said that there is a possibility many more ASEAN events and summits could be held online just like the ASEAN Special Summit and the ASEAN+3 Special Summit on COVID-19 Response Tuesday this week where final approvals of response measures and a joint statement are expected.

The 36th ASEAN Summit, originally scheduled to take place this past weekend, has for now been postponed to the end of June. [Vietnam News]

 14 April 2020

Philippines Government expresses “deep concern” after China-Vietnam incident in South China Sea

(jk) After a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands [Asia in Review No. 14, April/2020, 1], the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement indicating it is increasingly worried about Chinese actions in the South China Sea and that “trust in a friendship is lost” after such incidents. It cites “momentum” in talks on a Code of Conduct, as well as the current Covid-19 pandemic, which requires coordinated responses and mutual trust. [Department of Foreign Affairs]

While Chinese activity may not have increased since the onset of the corona crisis, its continuation despite an obvious need for cooperation and trust in extraordinary circumstances has not gone unnoticed in ASEAN. The US The Department of Defense also released a statement on the incident, echoing this point: “The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of the rules-based international order, as it sets the conditions that enable us to address this shared threat in a way that is transparent, focused, and effective. We call on all parties to refrain from actions that would destabilize the region, distract from the global response to the pandemic, or risk needlessly contributing to loss of life and property”. [US Department of Defense]

7 April 2020

Philippines & Vietnam: New anti-fake news laws thrive in corona crisis

(ls) After the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” on 25 March, the Act has been used to start criminal proceedings against journalists who have been accused of spreading false information about the corona crisis. According to the relevant section, the Act criminalizes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion”. [Reporters without borders] [Act on Senate’s website]

In Vietnam, a new law, which will come into effect on 15 April, will fine people who post or share false information about the corona virus online with significant amounts. The country’s Law on Cyber Security, which took effect in January 2019, already prohibits spreading fake news, but it does not stipulate specific fines for spreading them on social media. Nonetheless, the Department of Information and Communications has already issued hundreds of fines on individuals posting incorrect information about the virus outbreak. [The Register]

24 March 2020

36th ASEAN summit in Vietnam postponed

(ps) The 36th ASEAN summit in Da Nang, Vietnam has been postponed until end of June, after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc wrote to leaders of ASEAN countries. He said Vietnam has completed the organisational work for the summit, but postponement seems necessary in the context of COVID-19 spreading in the region and being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. [New Straits Times] [Vietnam Plus]

17 March 2020

South China Sea: US Carrier Visit to Vietnam; Japan-Vietnam security ties boosted

(hg) The USS Theodore Roosevelt – the lead ship of the ten Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – made its second visit to Vietnam. The visit marks 25 years of diplomatic relations and growing security ties. It occurs amid again heightening tensions between China and the US in the South China Sea after the latter has just accused a Chinese ship of firing a laser at a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying over the Philippine Sea. 

Meanwhile, Japan and Vietnam agreed to boost their security cooperation after the chief of staff of Japan’s defense forces met with his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi. [The Diplomat]

17 March 2020

Vietnam: conviction and lengthy sentence of Radio Free Asia blogger

(jk) A Radio Free Asia blogger of the U.S. Congress-funded RFA’s Vietnamese language service was charged with “abusing his position and authority” in an old land-fraud case he reported on and convicted to 10 years in prison last week. The United States Department of State condemned the conviction and called for his immediate release. [RFA]

The blogger disappeared from Bangkok’s streets back in January 2019 when he came to apply for refugee status at a Bangkok U.N. office. It was suspected then that he had been taken by Vietnamese agents against his will. Three months later he reappeared under arrest in Hanoi. [Committee to Protect Journalists]

17 March 2020

Vietnam and Philippines stand out in Reporters without Borders list on disinformation

(jk) On the “World Day Against Cyber Censorship” on March 12, Reporters Without Borders published a report on countries violating internet and press freedoms. The 2020 report on “leading digital predators” contains four categories: harassment, state censorship, disinformation and spying and surveillance. With regards to disinformation and spreading state-sponsored disinformation online, the Philippines and Vietnam stand out. [RSF]

In particular, the report highlighted “Force 47 in Vietnam, an “army of 10,000 cyber-soldiers” run by the Ministry of Public Security. Similar in nature to Russia’s Web Brigades and China’s 50 Cent Army, Force 47 are a highly organised unit of commentators and trolls that participate in online forums and on social media, as well as edit Wikipedia entries, to counter critical content and spread pro-government narratives.” [Southeast Asia Globe]

17 March 2020

Vietnam-Cambodia Naval Ties 

(hg) Vietnam and Cambodia held the latest in a series of frequent joint maritime patrols earlier this month. The patrol highlights the existing bilateral defense relationship between the countries despite the fact that Cambodia represents the ASEAN member state arguably closest to China while Vietnam is arguably most critical of the Chinese role in Southeast Asia. In light of increasing Chinese assertion with regard to the South China Sea, the rather regular patrol has some significance. [The Diplomat]

10 March 2020

South China Sea: Continued tensions between Southeast Asian countries

(ls/ps) Indonesia has detained dozens of crew members from Vietnamese boats it claims have been fishing illegally near the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian government claims the area in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. In January, Indonesia deployed fighter jets and warships in a conflict with Beijing over Chinese vessels entering the area. [Channel News Asia]

In addition, Malaysia, Vietnam and China have for weeks been entangled in a quiet naval standoff. As reported earlier [Asia in Review No. 8, February/2020], Malaysia triggered the showdown by exploring for energy resources beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnam then deployed militia vessels to the area, and China responded by launching the China Coast Guard’s (CCG). The developments, which pitted fellow ASEAN countries against each other, leave question marks over ASEAN’s joint approach toward China’s vast territorial claims. [Asia Times]

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the US are looking to further strengthen relations as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam. It is the second visit of a US warship to Vietnam since American troops left almost 50 years ago. China has repeatedly trespassed the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam with oil survey ships and fishing boats escorted by its coast guard. Analysts say Vietnam is unable to protect its resources and is therefore seeking international support. [South China Morning Post][US Navy]

10 March 2020

Vietnamese emergency over Mekong river drought displays cross-border effects

(ls) The Mekong river’s water resources, which are shared between several countries, are in the spotlight again as five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region have declared a state of emergency over a continued extreme drought and salinity. Lack of rain combined with growing water consumption on river tributaries, as well as increased water storage in dams in China and Laos, are likely to spur the drought and make saline intrusion more severe. Water usage upstream on the Mekong in China, Laos and Thailand has increased the dryness. [South China Morning Post]

25 February 2020

South China Sea: New standoff between Malaysia and Vietnam questions solidarity versus China

(ls) The U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published evidence of vessel movements in the South China Sea that indicate an ongoing standoff between Malaysian, Vietnamese and Chinese ships. In its report that outlines confrontations between Malaysian and Vietnamese ships, the center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) questions why the Malaysian government chose to ignore a 2009 joint submission with Vietnam about continental shelf claims and, in so doing, “undermined whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing.” [AMTI] [South China Morning Post]

18 February 2020

Malaysia seeks agreement with Vietnam to stop illegal fishing 

(fs) Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah announced that the country plans to fight encroachment of deep-sea fishermen from Vietnam in Malaysian waters by working out an agreement between the countries. A similar agreement does already exist between Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam positioned itself open to this idea last year. 141 Vietnamese fishermen were detained for encroachment into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone in 2019.  [The Malaysian Reserve]


11 February 2020

Vietnam: NGOs urge MEPs to postpone Vietnam trade deal vote 

(fs) After the European Union gave green light to the free trade agreement with Vietnam at the end of January [Asia in Review No 4, January/2020, 4], 28 NGOs signed a letter that demanded to postpone the plenary vote next week. In the letter addressed to members of the European Parliament, the NGOs expressed regret that even though Vietnam had failed to fulfill requests to improve human rights to the satisfaction of MEPs, the International Trade Committee (INTA) voted to quickly consent to both agreements, going against recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) and ignoring the pleas of NGOs, both international and Vietnamese.

As an example, the letter mentioned the 2019 EP’s refusal of ratification of the EU Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement because of the country’s unwillingness to abide by human rights and the rule of law. In particular, the NGOs urged Vietnam to disclose the legal mechanics behind the frequent use of penal provisions against journalists, lawyers and activists and to release political prisoners and detainees. The MEP’s decision will be made this week. [Human Rights Watch]


4 February 2020

Vietnam Orders Combat Training Jets From Russia

(jk) It was reported last week that Vietnam will buy 12 combat training aircraft from Russia, according to a US$ 350 million deal it has signed last year.  [The Moscow Times]

While Russia is the biggest arms supplier to Vietnam and to Southeast Asia, looking to increase its military footprint in the region (see e.g. Laos, Asia in Review No. 53, December/2019, 5), with the inclusion of China in a recent report on arms production and sales (see background reading), Russia has now dropped to third in the SIPRI rankings of the world’s largest arms producers and sellers, behind the US and China. 


28 January 2020

EU committee greenlights free trade agreement with Vietnam

(fs) The European Committee on International Trade has approved the free trade and investment protection agreements between the EU and Vietnam. This was preceded by almost eight-year negotiations. It is the largest free trade agreement the EU has ever had with a developing country.

Over the next ten years, many elements will be put into effect such as 99 percent of all customs duties on both sides will be abolished, a reduce of non-tariff trade barriers and bureaucratic hurdles by Vietnam, and increasingly introducing international standards and accepting EU certificates, an enhanced emblematic protection of 169 EU and 39 Vietnamese products and the market access for European and Vietnamese companies is to be facilitated. Furthermore, the agreement contains legally binding rules concerning sustainable development in matters of climate, labor and human rights.

The committee also approved an investment protection agreement with Vietnam. Unlike the free trade agreement, this not only has to be adopted by the Parliament and the Council but must also be ratified by each member state afterwards. The vote on the trade deal will be set in the Parliament’s February session in Strasbourg. After Singapore, Vietnam is the second largest EU trading partner in ASEAN. [European Parliament] [DW, in German]


21 January 2020

ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Vietnam, reaffirm UNCLOS and consider US Summit

(jk) Vietnam, holding the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020 convened the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat last week, discussing ASEAN’s priorities and regional developments for the year 2020. 

One major theme of the following joint statement referred to the South China Sea and mentioned the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) several times. The Foreign Ministers reaffirmed UNCLOS as “the basis for determining sovereignty, sovereign rights and legitimate interests over maritime areas” and that it “is the overarching framework of legal order for the seas that must be respected by all countries”. [ASEAN

The ministers also tentatively accepted a US proposal for a special summit in Las Vegas, but a final decision has yet to be made. US President Donald Trump invited ASEAN leaders to the United States, a good sign after he disappointed many by not appearing at summits in Southeast Asia on several occasions, including the East Asia Summit. [Bangkok Post]

Were the Las Vegas summit to go ahead, it could have a positive effect on working against some of the less desirable trends (from a US perspective) that are subject of this week’s background reading (below).


21 January 2020

Vietnam: Viettel announces own 5G services  

(fs) The country’s largest telecommunication provider will develop network equipment and software to launch its own 5G network. The military-owned company will both develop civilian and military network services. 

The decision can be seen as a sign of Vietnam’s effort to bypass China and its leading telecommunication company Huawei, consequently giving in to the pressure it has received from the U.S. about boycotting Huawei for reasons of national security. Viettel has more than 110 million customers in Southeast Asian countries Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.  [Financial Times]


7 January 2020

A closer look at Vietnam’s defence white paper of 2019 

(jk) In November 2019, for the first time in ten years, Vietnam released its Defence White Paper amid increasing tension with China in the South China Sea and an overall changing security environment. [Radio Free Asia] This article looks at the White Paper in more depth from an American perspective and interprets it as a clear message to China that it’s continued coercion may lead to closer defence relations with the US. While Vietnam does try to continue to balance its defence relationships, the authors claim that “Vietnam’s latest defense white paper is full of warnings to China and opportunities for the United States.” [War on the rocks]


7 January 2020

Japan and Vietnam vow to deepen cooperation

(dql) Taking aim at China, the foreign ministers of Japan and Vietnam at a meeting in Hanoi expressed their shared commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the South China Sea and agreed on close maritime security cooperation. They also agreed to work together to realize complete denuclearization of North Korea as well as to bring more countries into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. [Japan Times]

Vietnam holds the ASEAN chairmanship this year and is non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021.

31 December 2019

Vietnam: Former minister sentenced to life imprisonment

(fs) A Vietnamese court sentenced the former minister of information and communications for life in a corruption case that also included over a dozen other official executives who received lengthy prison terms. He was sentenced for taking bribes during his time in office in the range of US$ 3 million to manage the purchase of the digital television service AVG on behalf of the state-owned mobile network operator MobiFone. [Vietnam News]

24 December 2019

Vietnam: Increased cross-border hacking activities and cyber espionage

(ls/fs) According to reports, a group which is believed to be tied to the Vietnamese government and known as APT32 has increased its cyber espionage activities, particularly in Southeast Asia where the automotive industry has been a key target. The hacking group’s exploits have included intellectual property theft, the same activity for which Chinese hackers are well-known. Experts say that the Vietnamese hackers have emulated some of China’s cyber methods, though on a significantly smaller scale. Vietnam is part of a growing group of countries that are developing and buying cyber capabilities. [South China Morning Post 1]

At the same time, Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich stated that cyberspace has become a “new territory”, which in spite of its many benefits also arises itself as a new battlefield and therefore must be reckoned with. Due to frequent training, cooperation and mobilization of resources and equipment, Lich affirmed that the country’s military is prepared to “well handle situations in cyberspace” [tui tre news]

Meanwhile, Singapore suffered from a major cyber-attack on the personal data of about 100,000 defence personnel. Sensitive information held by two security force vendors, including full names, identification details, and a combination of contact numbers, email and residential addresses could be included in the potential data exposure. Earlier this year, the personal data of more than 4,000 people was compromised after Singapore Red Cross’ website was hacked. Last year, the non-medical personal particulars of about 1.5 million patients were illegally accessed and copied during a hack, which also tried to get hold of the private medical details of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. [South China Morning Post 2]

17 December 2019

Vietnam and US strengthen economic bond 

(fs) In the course of the reception of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council (USABC) in Hà Nội, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc declared to adjust the country’s economic environment to improve the situation for foreign enterprises in Vietnam, including those from the U.S. Concurrently, Phúc encouraged U.S. businesses to pay attention to the Vietnamese market and its economic possibilities. Regarding Vietnam’s upcoming position as the ASEAN Chair in 2020, the U.S. assured its support in this matter. [Viet Nam News]

Over the last year, Vietnam has largely profited from the ongoing US-China trade war, since a number of U.S.-based companies transferred their production locations from China to Vietnam or are in the process of doing so in order to avoid punitive duties.

3 December 2019

China and Vietnam vow to work together on peaceful solution in disputed waters

(dql) Last week, China and Vietnam held a vice-ministerial level meeting to discuss border cooperation on land and maritime issues. Beijing and Hanoi agreed to join efforts for a peaceful resolution in disputed waters. 

The meeting came after earlier in November the months-long Vanguard Bank standoff between China and Vietnam had ended, but also after Vietnam announced that it, while prioritizing bilateral dialogue, was also considering the possibility of filing a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague over China’s claims. [South China Morning Post]

3 December 2019

Vietnam jails 3 more activists over political Facebook posts

(jk) Three people have been jailed for anti-government posts on Facebook deemed to defame the ruling Communist Party and the state last week. Earlier in November, two others had been jailed on similar charges and an Amnesty International spokesman said previously that at least 16 people had been arrested this year prior to that. [Reuters]

26 November 2019

Vietnam: More bloggers facing prosecution

(ls) Vietnamese authorities continue to crack down on government critics. Last week, police arrested blogger and independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, accusing him of “dangerous” anti-state actions, including “fabricating, storing, and disseminating information, as well as other materials opposing the Vietnamese government.” He is the founder and president of the outlawed Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam. [VOA]

This week, blogger Pham Van Diep is facing trial on charges of posting, liking, and sharing information on Facebook in violation of article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, which criminalizes publication or distribution of information “that aims to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” He had repeatedly used blogs, and later his Facebook account, to address human rights abuses. [Human Rights Watch]

26 November 2019

Vietnam allows formation of independent trade unions

(ls) In an historic move, Vietnam has adopted an amended Labour Code that allows the formation of independent trade unions. The law will take effect in 2021 and is expected to pave the way for the ratification of several free trade agreements Vietnam has signed, including one with the European Union. The new law also improves collective bargaining rights, strengthens protections against discrimination at work, and enhances protections for younger workers. The EU-Vietnam FTA, which was signed in June this year, includes a chapter on sustainable development, such as implementing international standards on labour rights. It still needs the approval of the European Parliament. [Straits Times]

19 November 2019

Vietnam: 12-year jail term handed to Australian retiree in Vietnam for “terrorist activities against the state” 

(jk) A 70-year old Vietnamese-Australian retiree was convicted over his membership of the Viet Tan political party, which is critical of the Vietnamese government. It is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Vietnam since 2016. According to the police statement he gave US$400 to a second party to fund the operations of Viet Tan. [South China Morning Post]

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

5 November 2019

ASEAN: Vietnam assumes ASEAN chairmanship under “Cohesive and Responsive” Theme

(jk) Following the closing ceremony of the 35th ASEAN Summit and related summits in Bangkok on November 4, the ASEAN chairmanship for 2020 was passed on to Vietnam. Vietnamese PM Phuc stated in his speech that Vietnam’s theme for the ASEAN Year 2020 will be “Cohesive and Responsive”. He laid out that Vietnam will focus on “fostering the bloc’s sustainable cohesiveness through consolidating solidarity and unity, increasing economic connectivity, further intensifying the values and identities of the ASEAN Community, improving the efficiency of ASEAN’s apparatus, and stepping up relations with the bloc’s partners in the global community.” [Saigon Online]

29 October 2019

South China Sea: Philippines lifts moratorium as Vietnam prepares for new tensions with China

(ls) The Philippines will lift a 2018 moratorium on foreign scientific research in its exclusive economic zone so it can exploit marine resources. The previous ban was issued in February 2018 on an area called the Benham Rise, which the United Nations in 2012 declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. This year, two Chinese research vessels were spotted in Philippine-controlled waters, which became the subject of a diplomatic protest in August. In another incident, the Philippines protested the presence of more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels. Earlier this month, however, the Philippines welcomed the Russian oil firm Rosneft to explore the waters. [Reuters 1]

Meanwhile, a Chinese oil survey vessel that has been in the center of a tense standoff with Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea left Vietnamese-controlled waters after more than three months. According to observers, it is likely that now China will send an oil rig to drill in the area where the vessel had conducted seismic surveys in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which could result in a sharp rise of tensions. However, also Vietnam has partnered up with Rosneft. [Reuters 2]

22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment

(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]

22 October 2019

Vietnam: DreamWorks movie banned for displaying Chinese “nine-dash line”

(jk) The Vietnamese government has banned screenings of a DreamWorks animated movie, after finding that the film contains a map showing the controversial U-shaped dotted line, indicating China’s claims over the South China Sea. Other affected countries, such as the Philippines or Malaysia have also criticised or ordered to cut the scene from the movie, and after about a week, Malaysia has followed suit and also decided not to screen the movie. The so-called “nine-dash line” is a common feature on Chinese maps and even passports, but other countries reject Beijing’s claims which have no basis in contemporary international law. [Reuters]

15 October 2019

Duterte, following Vietnam, invites Rosneft to explore oil and gas field in South China Sea

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has invited the Russian company Rosneft to conduct oil and gas exploration in the Philippines, including the contested South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). The development needs to be seen against the background that Russian companies, including Rosneft, are already helping Vietnam explore for oil and gas in similarly contested waters. Despite warnings from Beijing, Russian firms have not abandoned the projects. Thus, it appears that Duterte may have adopted Vietnam’s strategy in this regard. [Rappler]

15 October 2019

Power shifts between Laos and Vietnam as new dam opens this month

(ls) In Laos, the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam is scheduled to open this month. It is widely expected to reduce water, fish and sediment to about 50 million people downriver, many in Vietnam. However, Vietnam has not openly protested the dam. Observers consider that this is not only due to the countries’ self-perception as socialist “brothers” but also because of China’s growing influence in land-locked Laos. China has helped build infrastructure, most notably a high-speed rail line and special economic zones. Some of the projects fall under China’s 6-year-old Belt and Road Initiative. As Vietnam is witnessing the growing Chinese influence in neighboring Cambodia, analysts say that Hanoi may not want to offend Vientiane and push it closer to Beijing too. [VOA]

At the same time, also Vietnam itself faces the dilemma how to overcome a domestic infrastructure bottleneck to promote economic growth while fending off unwarranted economic and security influences from China. Vietnam needs private capital and technical expertise to build projects in a timely and efficient manner. Reserving these projects for domestic investors may cast doubt on the economic rationality of decision-making. [ISEAS]

8 October 2019

China continues to interfere with Vietnamese fishers within Vietnam’s EEZ

(jk) According to Vietnamese media outlets, Chinese ships continue to harass and chase away local Vietnamese fishermen fishing within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In a latest incident over the weekend, three Chinese vessels drove away a Vietnamese fishing boat and prevented it from fishing just over 110 nautical miles off the coast of central Khanh Hoa Province. Similar incidents keep occurring according Vietnamese media. Last week, a Chinese speedboat prevented Vietnamese fishermen to recover their vessel after it sank in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. [VNExpress]

As for the broader tensions between Vietnam and China, Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer lays out three broad options for the Vietnamese leadership to consider:  (1) continue to muddle through by “cooperating and struggling” with China; (2) back down in order to relieve unrelenting Chinese pressure, the precedent set in the Repsol case in July 2017 and March 2018; and (3) counter-balance Chinese pressure by stepping up security and defence cooperation with the United States by agreeing to raise bilateral relations to a strategic partnership in the near future. [Radio Free Asia]

8 October 2019

Cambodia – Vietnam and Cambodia – Laos ratify border demarcations

(jk) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc have ratified 84 percent of border demarcation work completed between the two nations on their 1,270-kilometre border. [Khmer Times] Cambodia shares another border with Laos, which is also undergoing a demarcation process. PM Hun Sen  and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ratified 86 percent of the border between their two countries last month. [Bangkok Post]

1 October 2019

The political economy of social media in Vietnam

(ls) Unlike China where most Western social media platforms are blocked, Vietnam adopts a relatively open approach to these platforms. The Vietnamese government tends to accommodate Western social media platforms by trying to enforce their compliance with local rules through regulatory and economic means rather than blocking them altogether. This instructive piece from ISEAS describes the political economy of social media in Vietnam. [ISEAS]

1 October 2019

South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments

(ls/td) At the United Nations General Assembly, Vietnam voiced its concerns over the recent developments in the South China Sea, including incidents that Vietnam considered infringements of the country’s sovereignty. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts. [Bloomberg]

At the same time, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. referred to a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea which is targeted for signing in 2022 by ASEAN member states and China, as “a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room. (…) even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.” At the same time, Locsin praised a “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines. [PhilStar]

Meanwhile, Singapore and the United States formally renewed an agreement of 1990, renewed once in 2005, that grants U.S. forces access to Singapore’s naval and air bases. It now runs until 2035. Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defense officials refer to U.S. facilities in Singapore as American bases. [South China Morning Post]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

16 July 2019

ASEAN defense ministers meet while Chinese-Vietnamese stand-off in South China Sea continues

(ls) During the 13th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in Bangkok, the member countries’ defense ministers have signed the Joint Declaration on Sustainable Security to promote cooperation within ASEAN to counter non-traditional and transnational threats. Among the concept papers that have been adopted are the Terms of Reference of ASEAN Our Eyes and Guidelines for Maritime Interaction. The ministers also stressed the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. [Xinhua]

At the same time, six coastguard vessels – two Chinese and four Vietnamese – have been eyeing each other in patrols around Vanguard Bank in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea since last week. Initially, a Chinese survey ship entered waters near the Vietnamese-controlled reef to conduct a seismic survey. Vanguard Bank is the westernmost reef of the Spratlys and sits within what Hanoi claims is 200 nautical miles of its exclusive economic zone. That claim is contested by Beijing and Taiwan. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

EU-Vietnam free trade agreement finally signed

(ls) Vietnam and the European Union have signed a free trade agreement on Sunday. It will eliminate almost all tariffs for goods traded between Vietnam and the EU’s 28 member countries. The deal, which had been negotiated since 2012, is the EU’s second free-trade agreement in the Southeast Asian region, after one with Singapore. [South China Morning Post]

11 June 2019

Singapore Prime Minister’s post on the 1978 Vietnam-Cambodia issue upsets both countries

(cl) On May 31st, Prime Minister Lee posted on Facebook that the then-five Association of Southeast Nation members previously came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”. In a 2011 speech, former deputy prime minister said that Singapore had to respond to the “invasion of a smaller county by a larger neighbour” or it would have undermined the credibility of Singapore’s foreign policy and had serious implications for its security, adding that this would create an undesirable precedent for small nations. [Straits Times]

However, Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to PM Lee’s remarks. Cambodia Defence Minister General told media that his comments were “unacceptable”, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth”. Cambodia’s Prime Minister further accused PM Lee of supporting genocide. [Reuters] In response, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday that Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. It added that last Friday, Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with Vietnamese and Cambodian Prime Ministers, who agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences, they have taken a path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship. [Channel News Asia]

11 June 2019

Vietnamese activist sentenced to six years in prison for online posts

(jk) An environmental activist has been sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state” posts on Facebook. He was arrested in September last year and according to his indictment last week, he urged and incited protests on social media. [Reuters] The sentencing is yet another example of a trend in Vietnam towards harsher penalties and shrinking tolerance on behalf of the government towards citizens expressing critical thoughts online.

4 June 2019

34th ASEAN-Japan forum held in Hanoi

(jk) The annual forum held as a dialogue between the two sides took place in Hanoi this week. In addition to Vietnam’s and Japan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, senior officials from all ASEAN countries took part. [VietnamNews]

28 May 2019

Vietnam: Facebook increased content blocking by 500% in second half of 2018

(ls) Facebook increased the amount of content it restricted access to in Vietnam by over 500% in the last half of 2018. Facebook’s said it had made restrictions based on reports from Vietnam’s information and security ministries. The increase happened at a time when Vietnam was tightening internet restrictions, culminating in a cyber security law that came into effect this January. [Reuters]