Vietnam seeks support for 'maritime freedom'

By AFP/Jenny Vaughan, Tran Thi Minh Ha   August 24, 2016 | 02:58 am PT
Vietnam seeks support for 'maritime freedom'
Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang. Photo by VnExprerss
Vietnam's President hopes France and others will help to diffuse regional tensions in the flashpoint waters.

France and other countries should help to keep the peace in the disputed East Sea, Vietnam's president said Wednesday, using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea, as unease grows over China's increasingly muscular approach in the key waterway.

China claims most of the sea where it has built up reefs capable of hosting military equipment, sparking ire from competing claimants, including Vietnam, and raising fears of potential armed conflict.

Speaking to AFP ahead of a visit by French leader Francois Hollande next month, Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang expressed his hope.

"We highly welcome the cooperation from France and other nations in the process of maintaining peace and stability in the region and the world and on the East Sea," he said, speaking from the presidential palace, the former residence of the Indochina governor during French colonial rule.

Hanoi and Beijing have traded diplomatic barbs over disputed island chains and waters in the South China Sea and in 2014 China moved a controversial oil rig into contested territory, prompting riots in Vietnam.

The strategic waterway, also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, is rich in energy reserves, fishery resources and is a busy shipping route.

Quang's comments come after French Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in June he would ask European countries to conduct coordinated patrols in the South China Sea.

France and the United States have sent naval ships to the sea in recent months and have vowed to send more, angering Beijing.

The Vietnamese president said Hollande's visit would help to boost military ties between the former colonial foes, as Hanoi has rapidly increased its defense budget in the last decade.

"Several directions for cooperation will be strengthened and opened, like... ensuring security, safety and freedom of maritime and aviation," Quang said in a statement to AFP after the interview.

He added that Vietnam wants more unity in the regional 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has failed to forge a unified front against Beijing's militarization in the sea.

"We have been active together with countries in the ASEAN community to increase unity, considering this an important structure to contribute to maintaining regional peace," he said.

Last month Manila won its case against Beijing at a U.N.,-backed tribunal in the Hague which rejected China's claims to most of the sea.

Beijing boycotted the hearing, and has refused to recognize the ruling, and ASEAN has sidestepped the issue, failing to comment directly on it at a meeting of ministers last month.

Diplomats say Beijing has deftly courted Laos and Cambodia to split the bloc and blunt unified criticism.

France and Vietnam signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2013, which included boosted defence cooperation.

Related news:

Cambodia blocking ASEAN consensus on S. China Sea: diplomat

Vietnam calls on China not to complicate maritime issues

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