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Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea | The Diplomat

4/03/2015 11:22 pm

Philippines and Vietnam in


the South China Sea
Both countries see the disputed areas
as vital interests, yet have taken
divergent approaches in pressing their
claims.
By Lucio Blanco Pitlo III and Amruta
Karambelkar
October 21, 2013

Image Credit: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Among the claimants and littoral states of the


South China Sea (SCS), the Philippines and Vietnam have been the most vocal in expressing
their alarm and concern over growing Chinese assertiveness in this strategic and resource-rich
regional commons. Because of their power asymmetry vis--vis China, which has the most
extensive claims to the SCS, Manila and Hanoi have been supporters of the U.S. pivot to Asia,
to balance against Beijings growing maritime power projection, while also using diplomatic
outreach to cultivate as many supporters as possible. The Philippines has been bolstering its
defense and maritime law enforcement with the help of the U.S. and Japan. Vietnam is
meanwhile relying on its traditional partners India and Russia as additional cushions
against possible excesses of Chinas rise to power in the region. Both countries are also seeking
support from ASEAN.
The SCS dispute took a notable turn when Philippines went to UN arbitration to challenge
Chinas nine-dashed line. The claimants had to that point sought to manage the dispute
through regional mechanisms and bilateral talks. Not surprisingly, then, Manilas move has
irked Beijing, which has been insistent on not internationalizing the dispute. While it may be
premature to assess Manilas strategy at this stage, it is interesting to examine the factors that
led to parallels, as well as variances, in the strategies taken by Manila and Hanoi via--vis
Chinas increasing assertiveness in the SCS.
Vietnams strategies are shaped by its history, economy and geographical proximity with
China. Vietnams economy is highly reliant on its trade and investments with China and this
dependency limits Vietnams actions. Yet of all the disputants, it is Vietnam that has lost the
most ground to China in the SCS the Paracels in 1974 and part of the Spratlys (Johnson
South Reef and Fiery Cross Reef) in 1988. Hence, Hanoi has many axes to grind against China
in the SCS. Both countries have also contested offshore blocks each has awarded to foreign
energy players and have traded accusations of arrests and harassment of their fishermen.
However, alongside these clashes are positive milestones such as the demarcation of their
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Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea | The Diplomat

4/03/2015 11:22 pm

common land boundary, establishment of a joint fishing zone in Tonkin Gulf and more
recently the creation of a fishery hotline that could greatly aid in mitigating incidents at sea
arising from overlapping fishing grounds. As two socialist countries with a history of
competition and cooperation (they were Cold War and Vietnam War allies), many channels,
official and semi-official, including Party-to-Party talks, have served as platforms to ensure
that tensions are kept at manageable levels and not allowed to affect other aspects of bilateral
relations, notably trade and investment. In fact, just recently, the two countries signed 12
agreements to enhance bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade, infrastructure, energy and
maritime affairs, and set up a working group to look into joint exploration in SCS.
This status quo would seem to be an achievement of Chinese diplomacy, mitigating conflict
with Vietnam at a time when Beijing is embroiled in another dispute with the Philippines,
likewise over the SCS. When it comes to Vietnam, China would seem to have employed the
right strategy at the right time. Bilateral relations therefore appear unhindered despite the
territorial and maritime disputes, giving Vietnam little motivation to do what the Philippines
has done, and challenge Beijings claims before an international body.
Of course, Vietnam has continued to raise the SCS in ASEAN forums. It is also trying to
improve relations with the U.S., and is consulting with the Philippines on mutual concerns.
Although Vietnam has shown some support for Manilas move to arbitrate, this backing is
unlikely to graduate to a united Hanoi-Manila front versus Beijing. Again, Hanoi is
constrained in its options for dealing with Beijing, and cannot afford a bold stand, save for
fiery rhetoric. It will continue to express its dissatisfaction with China through the likes of the
ASEAN Regional Forum, which serves as an international outlet given the participation of
extra regional powers. Meanwhile, like other ASEAN countries, and especially those with SCS
claims, Vietnam will watch closely the outcome of Manilas arbitration bid and may reshape its
strategies accordingly. Given Manilas legal challenge, it can be argued that the Chinese
leadership may be more willing to compromise with Hanoi just to isolate Manila and prevent
the creation of a united front against Beijings sweeping SCS claims.
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