Official visits between heads of state of members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are often too commonplace to be noteworthy.
But last week’s visit to the Philippines by Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang marked a significant step-up in relations between the two countries which particularly reflects their common interest in disputing China’s claims to most of the islands and resources of the South China Sea. The two have the longest South China Sea coastlines and hence claims on adjacent waters.
The visit thus complements the warming relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.—underscored by visits to Hanoi of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she spelled out U.S. interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and peaceful settlement of disputes over islands. U.S. warships have paid courtesy calls in Vietnam and a civilian manned U.S. naval supply ship left Vietnam in October after being provided with extensive repairs.
The Sang visit also overlapped with an annual U.S.-Philippine military exercise which pointedly involved a beach assault by marines on an island off Palawan, the large Philippine island closest to the disputed areas.
Coincidentally or not, last week also saw the publication of one of the most bellicose commentaries on the South China Sea to come out of China.
The Global Times accused those opposing China’s sea claims of taking advantage of its claimed “mild diplomatic stance.” It warned that if they did not change their ways “they will need to be mentally prepared for the sound of cannons. We need to be ready for that as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved."
The Global Times is known for presenting nationalistic opinions which do not reflect official policy. But the fact that Beijing permits such views to be published in a well-known journal owned by the People's Daily and which appears in English as well as Chinese shows that it reflects some influential opinions.
Publication may be seen either as a none-too-veiled threat to the other claimants or as a way of allowing nationalists to let off steam, or both. China cannot, at least for now, sacrifice its broader interests in good relations with ASEAN countries on the altar of its sea claims.
Vital sea lane
Nonetheless the sea has become a much more significant issue than previously and one which is engaging the attentions not only of the littoral states and the U.S., but of Japan and other countries for which it is a vital sea lane.
Until recently, Vietnam had been seen as the most determined opponent of China’s attempts gradually to assert its all-embracing claim. The Vietnamese still smart from China’s seizure of the Paracel islands, due east of the Vietnam coast, during the last days of the South Vietnam government, and a 1988 Chinese attack in the Spratlys which killed 70 Vietnamese sailors.
More recently, China has harassed exploration vessels operating within the 200-mile (322 kilometer) Exclusive Economic Zone off the central Vietnam coast and dissuaded some major oil companies from drilling in these waters.
Over the past year or so the Philippines has emerged to take a more positive role in protecting its own claims to the islands and resources which lie to the west of its long coastline. It already has oil and gas production from this region and is expanding exploration into deeper adjacent waters.
The EEZ also has significant—though declining—fish resources which have been a cause of friction with Vietnamese as well as Chinese fishing boats. The Philippines had been seen as militarily too weak to protect its fisheries, let alone its island claims. Indeed under former President Gloria Arroyo, it even signed a bilateral exploration deal with a Chinese state company in 2004 which appeared contrary to an ASEAN agreement to deal with issues multilaterally. This was apparently linked to Chinese investment in other projects.
But in response to what have been seen as Chinese provocations, the Aquino administration has taken a stronger stance. The Philippines was especially incensed by China’s harassment of vessels exploring the Reed Bank (Recto Bank) which lies just 80 miles (129 kilometers) from the coast of its big island of Palawan, but 400 miles (644 kilometers) from the Chinese mainland.
Manila has also taken to referring to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea and now always uses Philippine names for the islands it claims. It has pressed ahead with hydrocarbon development, offered new blocks for exploration and arrested Chinese fishing vessels said to be poaching.
President Aquino has also been developing contacts with Indonesia on the issue, as evidenced by discussions in March with President Yudhoyono. Although not directly involved in the disputed claims, Indonesia is as anxious as its neighbors not to see the South China Sea become a “Chinese lake." China’s claims also come very close to the waters around Indonesia’s Natuna islands, which have large gas deposits.
The Sang visit affirmed that maritime cooperation was a “principal pillar” of Vietnam-Philippine relations, elevating it to vice-ministerial level and providing for a hotline between the Philippine Coast Guard and its Vietnam Marine Police.
Most fundamentally, they agreed that sea disputes should be settled within the terms of international law and, in particular, the 1982 U.N. Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) which lays down rules for determining maritime and seabed rights and boundaries by reference to issues such as proximity to the mainland and extent of the continental shelf. China has not explicitly rejected UNCLOS but insists that issues must be settled bilaterally.
The numerous islands, reefs and rocks which are now claimed by various parties, including Malaysia, Taiwan (as Republic of China) and Brunei, have never been permanently inhabited. China’s “historic” claim to all of them relies on an ethnocentric view of the world and ignores the fact that Chinese were latecomers to seafaring in this long predominantly Malay sea.
Vietnam’s claims are based partly on Vietnam’s imperial history (and the Cham trading empire based in central Vietnam before that) and partly on its inheritance of French colonial claims. The U.S. made no specific claims when it ruled the Philippines. Manila’s claims date to 1946 but asserts not only proximity to Palawan but inclusion of the Spratly group (known as Kalayaan in the Philippines) in its archipelago.
The overlapping of Vietnamese, Philippine and Malaysian claims complicates the ASEAN members’ approach to the issue.
The islands are not claimed just for their own sake but as basis for claims to EEZs around them. But as far as Vietnam and the Philippines are concerned, their focus is now on disputing distant China’s claims to the whole sea and being able to develop the hydrocarbon resources within their respective 200-mile (322 kilometer) limits which are implicitly recognized by nations other than China.
The Philippines also disputes with China the Scarborough Shoal which is 120 miles (193 kilometers) west of Subic Bay and the fish-rich Macclesfield Bank midway between the Philippines and central Vietnam. Neither are part of the Spratlys.
Control of the whole sea means control of the sea lanes which is what makes this issue so important for other nations, particularly Japan and South Korea, as well as their link to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and to the U.S. as a global commercial and military power.
The Philippines and Vietnam host its two best naval bases, names long familiar to Americans—Subic Bay and Cam Ranh Bay—which also happen to lie close to the main sea lanes which traverse the central part of the sea between the Luzon and Malacca straits and Singapore.
So it is no surprise to find that U.S. warships are again being seen in Vietnamese waters and, although the U.S. was removed from its Subic base in 1992, U.S.-Philippine military exercises are now being given a higher profile and Japanese warships are also visitors.
The South China Sea dispute is only one aspect of relations between ASEAN states and China. Investment and trade opportunities matter too and so ASEAN treads warily, keen not to offend a buoyant China.
But Philippine-Vietnam cooperation reflects not just their mutual national interests in the South China Sea, but the increasing complexity of strategic issues in East Asia as countries look to manage their bilateral relationships with China while finding allies against its perceived hegemonic instincts.
Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.