The Arbitral Tribunalʼs rulings on the South China Sea issued on the 12 July 2016 was widely recognized to be a major turning point in the disputes on the South China Sea, potentially being a “game changer” with profound impacts on the policies of the major players in the region and even beyond. This article aims to review the views from Vietnam on the arbitral process since its inception and how Vietnam evaluates Tribunalʼs final outcomes to understand the potential impacts of the rulings on Vietnamʼs next steps on the South China Sea. The article will also articulates the authorʼs views on the roles Japan could consider playing to constructively contribute to the management of maritime disputes in the East Asia region.
Vietnam’s initial reactions to the Arbitralprocess initiated by the Philippines
When the Philippines formally notified China in its Note dated 22 January 2013 of the initiation of the arbitral process under Annex VII of the 1982 UNCLOS, a key policy question for Vietnam was how to react to the move by the Philippines, both in form and in substance, to best protect and advance its legal interests in the South China Sea, while managing diplomatic relations with its neighbors and the region as a whole. Several factors were at play in Vietnamʼs considerations. As a major claimant of the Spratlys, the features involved in the arbitral process were also claimed by Vietnam, with the only exception of the Scarborough Shoal. Having its rights and obligations clearly affected, questions were initially raised if Vietnam was an indispensible party to the dispute and therefore Vietnamʼs participation in the arbitral process was vital to the process itself. With fewer than a dozen cases initiated under Annex VII of UNCLOS thus far, and given the complexity of the disputes in the South China Sea, there were not enough precedencies to shed light on how the arbitral process were going to proceed, if and how third parties like Vietnam could intervene in this first ever legal proceedings in the South China Sea. The procedural uncertainty deepened further as China refused to recognize and participate in the proceedings. There were also concerns if the case merits Vietnamʼs overall interests. Even though the Philippines initiated the process against China, it was not clear from the beginning how the Philippines viewed the role of Vietnam in the case, or if the case would have unintended negative implications to Vietnamʼs claims.