Vietnam's repeated calls for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in the East Sea have been hailed as an effective diplomatic approach.
"Vietnam is not alone in calling for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes in East Asia. This is a good diplomatic approach to the problem because it puts China and any other country that would threaten the use of force on the back foot," said Prof. Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy's School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
"Vietnam and other countries have played an instrumental role in encouraging the United States to be more proactive," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.
"Secretary Robert Gates was quite forthcoming in his remarks. China has signaled that it may be stepping back from its recent assertiveness and belligerency."
Early this week, regional defense ministers met in Hanoi at the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM+), calling for nations to deal cooperatively with security challenges, including maritime security. These talks were the first-ever between the ten ASEAN defense ministers and eight regional partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
In his speech at the opening session, Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung said that Vietnam, like the rest of ASEAN, "holds the view that concerned parties seek solutions to the [East Sea] dispute through peaceful means.
"In serving the goal of universal peace and security, ASEAN always attaches importance to cooperation, creating favorable conditions for key partners outside Southeast Asia to engage in and contribute efforts to tackling common security threats by sharing standards of conduct encapsulated in agreements such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC); Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ); the ASEAN Convention; the declarations between ASEAN and partners on counter - terrorism; as well as Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the [East] Sea (DOC)," Dung said.
Prime Minister Dung is ASEAN Chairman for 2010.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the meeting that recent territorial disputes in Asian seas are an increasing threat to the region's stability. He suggested a maritime code of conduct.
"Disagreements over territorial claims and appropriate use of the maritime domain appear to be a growing challenge to regional stability and prosperity... Competing claims should be settled peacefully, without force or coercion," he said.
Referring to the US's role in the region, Prof. Thayer said that the US has played a "very positive role" and acted with restraint.
"Secretary Gates made his points without specifically mentioning China and the [East Sea] but everyone, including the Chinese, knew what he was talking about," he said.
"The US response, since the Obama Administration took office, has been for senior officials to put China on notice that it cannot threaten US companies wishing to help Vietnam develop the East Sea."
"Rather than risk being isolated China has stepped down. It released nine Vietnamese fishermen on the eve of the ADMM+ without requiring payment of a fine... China has come to realize that it has more to lose by its belligerent behavior," Thayer said.
At a press briefing during the ADMM+, Guan You Fei, Deputy Head of External Relations of China's Defense Ministry, said China considers the situation in the East Sea stable and not a matter involving China-ADMM or China-ASEAN.
The Chinese delegation also made a point during ADMM+, which wrapped up on Tuesday (October 12), that its military growth does not conflict with other nations' security or that of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.
Australia and Malaysia will head the working group on maritime security. "This has the potential of firming up "˜rules of the road' and encouraging China to observe well established practices between navies when their ships meet at sea," Thayer said.
Vietnam will host the ASEAN Defense Senior Officials' meeting-plus in December to carry forward discussions and agreements reached at the ADMM+, officials said.
The next ADMM+ will be held in Brunei in 2013.