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It was all economics in Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh’s remarks during the opening session of the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, on 10 May 2023. He urged the 10-Member grouping to pursue a “strategy of self-reliance, turning itself into a growth epicentre and better adapting to external shocks”. As is customary, he recalled “values, vitality and reputation”, the three core factors in ASEAN’s conduct of its international relations-business for “strengthening solidarity and unity” for an “independent, self-resilient ASEAN” 

Prime Minister Chinh emphasised that the ASEAN fast-track cooperation in “digital economy, digital government and circular economy in tandem with electricity connectivity and renewable energy development, soon set forth long-term strategies on high-quality personnel training”. The purpose of highlighting the digital economy by Prime Minister Chinh is driven by the belief that digital transformation can potentially bring about a 1.1% annual increase in the GDP growth of Vietnam.  Also, the county aims to enter the top 50 countries in e-government and ensure that the digital economy accounts for 30% of the country’s GDP by 2030. At the regional level, Vietnam aspires to emerge as the Digital Hub for the Asia-Pacific region, and be a “central point for data transfer and telecommunications infrastructure connectivity in the region”.

It was also an occasion for Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, his host, to discuss bilateral issues including the 10th anniversary of their strategic partnership this year. Both leaders affirmed to work closely through the established bilateral cooperation mechanisms and increase bilateral trade to US$15 billion or higher by 2028 by improving market access.  

At the strategic-regional level, both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to uphold the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and accelerate negotiations for an efficient and effective Code of Conduct (COC) in the East Sea (South China Sea) in accordance with international law, particularly the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In fact, the above issues are a recurring feature of ASEAN statements both at the multilateral as also at bilateral level with China.  

The two leaders also discussed bilateral maritime security challenges. First, the need to set up a hotline to monitor illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It is important to recall that the two maritime neighbours signed the EEZ agreement in December 2022 after 12 years of intensive talks. However, “neither Indonesia nor Vietnam has published a clear explanation or chart on where exactly the border line starts and ends”. Consequently, Indonesian law enforcement agencies apprehended 136 Vietnamese fishing boats in the North Natuna Sea. 

Notwithstanding that, both leaders agreed that the “implementing arrangement and ratification process should be completed soon” and the “MoU on marine and fisheries is to be resolved immediately,” It is widely accepted that the agreement would “reduce conflicts between Indonesian and Vietnamese fishing vessels”. Vietnam and Indonesia are Parties to the FAO Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), a binding international agreement that targets explicitly IUU fishing and “lays down a minimum set of standard measures for Parties to apply when foreign vessels seek entry into their ports or while they are in their ports”. 

The second is about “sharing information about law enforcement at sea”. Soon after Vietnam and Indonesia signed the EEZ agreement in December 2022, a Chinese vessel was found sailing in the Tuna Bloc gas field in the Natuna Sea (investment exceeding US$ 3 billion). The Indonesian law enforcement agency dispatched one of its vessels to the area. China’s so-called nine-dash-line covers some sea areas of the Natuna waters. 

Similarly, Chinese vessels have also been sighted in the Chim Sao oil and gas field in Vietnam. More recently, Vietnam’s fisheries surveillance ship Kiem Ngu 414 was harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard vessel 4303 and militia ship Qiong Sansha Yu 309 near Vietnam’s oil and gas fields.

While illegal fishing in each other’s waters by the respective fishermen is a bilateral issue between Vietnam and Indonesia and can be resolved through initiatives such as a hotline, both sides are confronted with aggressive Chinese ‘Gray Zone” operations in their waters. Chinese naval-Coast Guard-maritime militia activity in the South China Sea is a common concern and even non-ASEAN countries who “promote maritime cooperation” aimed at “enhancing trust, friendship and confidence” can be at the receiving end of Chinese operations. For instance, during the recent ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME-23) codenamed ‘Exercise Flotilla’, Chinese militia vessel had attempted to “disturb the maritime exercise” forcing defensive manoeuvres in response to the Chinese action.

Title image courtesy: Youtube

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

By Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is the former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, Co-founder and Trustee of Peninsula Foundation, Distinguished Fellow at Center for Public Policy Research, Visiting and Senior Fellow, at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. An Adjunct Faculty at School of Maritime and Air and Space Studies & Rashtriya Raksha University. He is also associated with Kalinga International Foundation and Indian Council of World Affairs. Dr Sakhuja has been on the faculty of Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, Gujarat National Law University, Director (Research) at Indian Council of World Affairs, IDSA, ORF, USI and CAPS. A former Indian Navy officer, Sakhuja specializes in Indo-Pacific affairs, 4th Industrial Revolution technologies, Arctic issues and Blue Economy. He has published over 40 books, edited volumes and monographs. Dr. Vijay Sakhuja is currently associated with Defence Research and Studies innovations’ (DRaSi).