Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Grey-zone conduct could threaten prospects of cooperation, peace in East Sea: Diplomat


“Grey zone activities are usually undertaken at the intersection between different domains between the civilian and the military, between peace and conflict, lawfulness and lawlessness, and between physical and cyber worlds,” the diplomat noted, saying that these conducts “have significantly heightened risks of confrontation and exerted destabilising effects on the rule of law and the regional order.” 
Grey-zone activities, if not handled properly, could darken the prospects of cooperation, peace and stability in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) and in the region at large.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Đỗ Hùng Việt made the remarks on Wednesday as he addressed the opening of the 15th East Sea Conference themed “Luminate the Grey, Light up the Green” held in HCM City by the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam.

Calling attention to the tactics in the “critically important body of water that connects the Indian Ocean and the Pacific” where the situation has grown increasingly complicated while territorial disputes remain unsolved over the last 15 years, Việt said “various shades of grey have emerged at sea, with 'grey' meaning areas that lack transparency, certainty, and predictability.”

“Grey zone activities are usually undertaken at the intersection between different domains between the civilian and the military, between peace and conflict, lawfulness and lawlessness, and between physical and cyber worlds,” the diplomat noted, saying that these conducts “have significantly heightened risks of confrontation and exerted destabilising effects on the rule of law and the regional order.”

He said grey-zone activities erode international laws, and at the same time, the need to ensure that the East Sea remains a sea of cooperation must be a top collective concern.

“This is a region of tremendous opportunities – from promotion of renewable energy, sustainable use of strategic minerals to management of critical infrastructure, from utilising emerging technologies, addressing climate change to building novel frameworks and rules for new domains.”

These initiatives and efforts will help foster cooperation at sea and help turn the dominant colour of the East Sea from “grey” to “green”, towards sustainable peace and development.

“And for that to happen, respecting and upholding international law of the sea as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is critical. UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out. It is of strategic importance as the basis for national, regional and global maritime cooperation and therefore its integrity needs to be maintained,” according to the Vietnamese official.

“Việt Nam continues to be a strong believer in the rule of international law, and a strong proponent of UNCLOS. Việt Nam continues to believe in the indispensable role of UNCLOS, as highlighted by the UN General Assembly’s resolution and we are strongly committed to upholding UNCLOS and international law.”

Việt said together with ASEAN countries, they are striving for a stable and lawful regional order, including in the maritime domain.

“We are committed to the effective operationalisation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific and the recently launched ASEAN Maritime Outlook, a strategic guidance for ASEAN member states to expand their maritime cooperation regionally and internationally. We are open to new initiatives and our common goals through bilateral, multilateral, open new frameworks,” he stated.

Nguyễn Hùng Sơn, vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam, opined that the disputes on the East Sea have become a lot more multi-dimensional over the past 15 years – with more layers into it, more players, and more domains.

The disputes have also become multilateralised, as ASEAN is fully evolved, they want to be central in having a voice on how this should be resolved or how it should be managed.

“The East Sea issue was discussed even at forums like the G7, G20, or the UN, so there’s clearly an international and global interest on how such geopolitically or geostrategic contestation is managed,” he said.

He also noted that the East Sea has also become a lot more militarised, with the fortifications of several outpost and a lot more military assets in the region.

The East Sea issue has also gone multidomain as it no longer is the contestation merely in the sea surface, but has also gone into contestation in the submarine domain, in the air, in space, and recently, the seabed, and what is laid on the season on the seabed such as internet cables, according to the scholar.

Technology has become a critical part of how the East Sea disputes evolve, he noted.

“With remote sensing technology, with unmanned vehicles, with drones these days, we have seen in a more transparent East Sea,” adding that various transparency initiatives and maritime domain awareness systems is now “shedding light and trying to transparent-ise” the maritime environment.

Another positive development, according to Sơn, is that now the law has become a lot clearer in the East Sea, and "we have a much better understanding of the governing rules of UNCLOS and how it applies and how it should be integrated, and also we have also a lot clearer claims from several claimants".

He cited the examples of overlapping claims between Việt Nam and Indonesia or between Indonesia and Malaysia having been resolved under the light of international law.

The downside is there's also clear abuse or manipulations of how the law is interpreted and that has been done with the expansion of the grey zones.

According to the Vietnamese scholar, the grey zone activities are creating confusion or undermining the interpretation and understanding of the rule of law, which in turn, erodes trust in the region.

Sơn believes the best lesson learned over the past 15 years in the East Sea, at least what Việt Nam has done, is that when countries “try to interpret and try to implement international law in a faithful manner, you’ll have a better chance to cooperate and to talk to your neighbour and to resolve overlapping claims.”

He cautioned that as the East Sea disputes become internationalised, the risk of incidences is increasing due to “higher involvement of different stakeholders and because of the nature of the assets that are involved in those incidents.”

“Incidents once happen, we feel that the incidents can very quickly escalate and become an international crisis. Why is it so because the sea space is very transparent now, and everybody can see there's going to be tremendous pressure on the different governments involved or even on the governments not involved to express an opinion or to act on such an incident. And the pressure on the government by its domestic audience is also going to be very hard. Therefore, incidents are going to be a lot harder to manage or control when it erupts,” the scholar stressed.

For this reason, it’s important that the Code of Conduct be advanced and negotiated, as the Code is going to be primarily an instrument for incident management and risk reduction.

But Sơn also believes that there should be a much larger, broader code to handle all sorts of possible incidents in broader maritime domains in a future-proof manner, not just in the East Sea, but also in the seas of Southeast Asia, or even in the seas of the Indo Pacific.

Prof. Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales and Director of Thayer Consultancy, Australia, on whether COC could be sufficient, said the COC itself should be expanded to include attachments and appendices to include every possible detail – including what the chain of reactions should be when a specific incident occurs.

With regards to law enforcement, he said the provision in the draft text of the code is to take it to the ASEAN High Council, and that has to be voluntary, which is a weakness, and it needs to be compulsory and binding.

The professor also suggested that once COC is finished, ASEAN member countries’ national legislatures should ratify it, and ASEAN gives the instruments to the ASEAN Secretary General who will transmit the code to the UN General Secretary and make it a treaty.

Prof. Jay Batongbacal, Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, University of Philippines, the Philippines, urged to refrain from taking unilateral actions that result in fait accompli in the East Sea while negotiations for COC is still going on.

"Good faith and self-restraint must accompany the talks. There should not be attempts to change the status quo, which could make the talks eventually irrelevant," he stressed.






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