On September 12, Vietnam publicly denounced the provocative actions of Chinese vessels in Vietnamese waters for the seventh time since June, urging China to withdraw their ships. These statements have done little to deter China’s activities: the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 continues to violate Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, while Chinese coastguard vessels such as the Haijing 35111 harass Vietnamese oil and gas operations on its own continental shelf.

It has been suggested that Vietnam should do more to bring China’s “bullying behavior” in the South China Sea to the attention of the international community. With the UN General Assembly (UNGA) meeting this month in New York, is now the time for Vietnam to bring this issue to the United Nations?

The Significance of UNGA

UNGA and the Security Council are the two most important organs of the United Nations. Member-states often bring questions of international peace and security before UNGA because the effectiveness of the Security Council is frequently stymied by a veto from one of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). A resolution adopted by UNGA may bring certain political and legal consequences that many states hope can help resolve their conflicts.

UNGA’s power rests on the fact that it comprises all member-states and that every state has an equal vote. When UNGA passes a resolution, it can be said to reflect the view of the international community; states seek such resolutions to legitimate their actions. UNGA resolutions can influence member-states politically and therefore affect foreign policy choices. For instance, recommendations expressed by UNGA were accepted as the principles by which the United States negotiated with China during the Korean War.

Resolutions of UNGA can also yield certain legal effects. As F. Blaine Sloan has noted:

[T]he force of a recommendation is not derived from a judgment made in an internal court of conscience, but from a judgment made by an organ of the world community and supported by many of the same considerations which support positive international law…

Some scholars even consider UNGA resolutions to represent global consensus, which may be later treated as an element constituting customary international law. In this vein, UNGA resolutions have often been cited in international courts. A recent interesting example lies in a recent World Trade Organization dispute between Russia and Ukraine concerning the situation of Crimea, where the panel cited a UNGA resolution in their surprising ruling in Russia’s favor.

Bringing the South China Sea to UNGA

Given the potential impact of a resolution in its favor, it is easy to understand why Vietnam might consider bringing recent issues in the South China Sea before UNGA.

Clearly Vietnam can do so legitimately under the UN Charter. Articles 11 and 14 establish discussing and making recommendations on issues affecting international peace and security as crucial functions of UNGA. Given the fact that the South China Sea comprises international waters and is important to the global maritime trading system, Vietnam can easily argue that the situation in the South China Sea goes beyond the scope of a dispute among a few states or even of a regional conflict and should be seen as an issue of international peace and security.

There are, nonetheless, serious obstacles preventing Vietnam from achieving a significant victory from such a bold move. The major problem may lie in lobbying UN member-states to side with Vietnam in what amounts to a direct challenge to China before the international community. Although powerful countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have expressed concern about China’s actions, their support may not be enough when it comes to passing an UNGA resolution. The number of countries that have previously backed Chinese positions on the South China Sea is not insignificant. China’s influence among African countries in particular must be taken into account. Moreover, Beijing is seemingly in the process of negotiations with Malaysia and the Philippines, who may not want to jeopardize bilateral progress even if their economic activities at sea have also been harassed by China. This scenario makes it hard for Vietnam to convince other countries in the United Nations, including their its South China Sea neighbors, to show enthusiastic support.

In 2014, when China deployed an oil rig to Vietnam’s claimed continental shelf and caused a stand-off between the two countries, it made headlines in major global newspapers and captured the attention of the world. This year, things are different—China’s actions have not spurred the same global reaction. It would seem overly optimistic to hope for a big win at UNGA at this moment for Hanoi.

Given the profound political and legal impact of an UNGA resolution on the South China Sea, Vietnam should keep this option in its list of possible strategies, but there are some preliminary steps Hanoi should take to organize international support and increase its chances of success. For example, a statement by ASEAN countries or ASEAN itself expressing concerns about the situation in the South China Sea may give the issue more traction at UNGA meetings. A statement jointly drafted and signed by Vietnam and other interested states such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, and Japan could also help. In both cases, Hanoi must play an active role and adopt adroit diplomatic tactics.

Raising the issue of the South China Sea at UNGA would require not only a meticulous strategy, but also a great deal of effort and time. At the moment, the likelihood of success is probably not high enough for Vietnam to take the risk. But given the proper groundwork, an UNGA resolution remains a potent option for smaller countries like Vietnam who are looking to stand their ground against China in the South China Sea.

About Pham Ngoc Minh Trang

Pham Ngoc Minh Trang is a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law.