HANOI – In the run-up to this year’s East Asia Summit (EAS), the Philippines and Vietnam have sent a preemptive joint message: they are not willing to yield to rising Chinese pressure on unresolved South China Sea territorial issues.
The new loose alliance between the two Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members aims to enhance their strategic cooperation and has effectively invited other regional powers to help counterbalance China’s claims in the brewing multilateral dispute.
The EAS will take place in mid-November in Bali, Indonesia, and for the first time will also include the United States and Russia. South China Sea tensions are expected to feature prominently at
the multilateral meeting, which will see several world leaders, including United States President Barack Obama, in attendance.
In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam have taken a similar two-way diplomatic approach by strengthening relations with China’s traditional regional competitors, including Japan and India, while at the same time maintaining dialogue and growing commercial ties with Beijing.
At the same time, the ASEAN neighbors have strengthened their bilateral security ties in an apparent bid to counterbalance China’s rising naval power. On October 27, Philippine President Benigno Aquino signed several maritime pacts with his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang, including naval agreements to share information, respond to natural disasters, prevent smuggling and piracy, and protect marine resources in the South China Sea.
Sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea is contested by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. In the past six months, tensions have spiked through incidents at sea while at the same time claimants have released a series of joint statements aimed at finding a common and peaceful solution to their overlapping territorial claims. Many areas of the South China Sea are believed to be rich in fossil fuels and are important to regional navigation and trade.
By joining forces, the Philippines and Vietnam aim to enhance their negotiating leverage vis-a-vis China. Beijing has repeatedly stated its preference to pursue bilateral agreements with smaller claimant countries while the latter have pushed for a binding agreement through multilateral channels led by the 10-member ASEAN.
During the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum held in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his ASEAN counterparts signed a document setting out agreed measures to make the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea more binding. The new eight-point document laid out guidelines for the implementation and agreement by consensus of future joint cooperation activities that lead to the “eventual realization” of a formal code of conduct in the maritime area.
The agreement received mixed reviews. Philippine officials said that the new DOC guidelines won’t do enough to alleviate tensions. Vietnamese officials highlighted their coordination with the meeting’s host, Indonesia, and spoke about the “success” of the multilateral forum.
Tong Xiaoling, China’s ambassador to ASEAN, asserted that the grouping is not a party to the territorial conflict “so a document reached by the two sides cannot solve the disputes”. He stressed that the issue could be resolved only through a “bilateral framework”.
Amid these divergent views, Philippine President Aquino traveled to Beijing in early September for a meeting with his counterpart Hu Jintao. The five-day visit was dogged by South China Sea tensions, but the two leaders reiterated their commitment “to addressing the disputes through peaceful dialogue, to maintain continued regional peace, security, stability and an environment conducive to economic progress”.
Later that same month, during a September 27 meeting in Tokyo, Aquino demonstrated lack of faith in that cooperative rhetoric by boosting naval ties with Japan – also in the name of upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea. The day after the announcement, Japan and ASEAN defense officials held a high-profile meeting on South China Sea cooperation and consultation. Relations between Japan and ASEAN have “matured from dialogue to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role”, said Kimito Nakae, Japan’s vice minister of defense, after the meeting.
Nakae was also cited in press reports saying that tensions over oil exploration and military outposts in the South China Sea would require more cooperation from the US and India to manage. On that cue, Vietnamese President Sang met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met on October 12 and signed an oil and gas exploration agreement between India’s ONGC Videsh and PetroVietnam in a South China Sea area claimed by Hanoi but contested by China.
Predictably, the agreement was not welcomed in Beijing. “India’s energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool,” said a front-page commentary in the state-owned newspaper China Energy News, published by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, in response to the joint exploration announcement.
The energy deal was concluded one day after Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong arrived in Beijing for bilateral discussions. Trong concluded a bilateral agreement seeking to contain South China Sea-related disputes. At the same time, at the end of October, Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen Phung Quang Thanh and his Japanese counterpart Yasuo Ichikawa signed a new memorandum enhancing bilateral defense cooperation.
While Manila’s hardening policy towards China is backed by its historical alliance with the US, Hanoi has been somewhat more ambiguous in its position. On one hand, Vietnam’s foreign policy is based on the so-called “friends to all” principle; on the other, the ambiguity reflects internal divisions inside the ruling CPV and government, according to a well-placed CPV source who spoke with Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.
While CPV chief Trong is viewed as pro-Chinese, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is thought to be more pro-West in outlook and keen to improve relations and strategic cooperation with the US. Sang is seen to hold the balance of power and recent moves indicate that he too is leaning towards the West, the CPV source added.
The US is responding – at least rhetorically – to those strategic calls. During his first tour in Asia, newly appointed US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed the US’s strategic role in the region at an annual meeting of ASEAN defense ministers held in late October. “I told them that I would do everything possible … to develop a relationship in which the security of this region will be strengthened for the future,” Panetta said.
His statement echoed a policy concept developed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for more US strategic involvement outlined in a recent essay published in Foreign Policy. In that report, Clinton wrote, “The United States has moved to fully engage the region’s multilateral institutions, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).” Similar statements promoting more multilateralism to solve the dispute are expected during Obama’s visit to the EAS on November 19.
The Philippines and Vietnam are in their own ways promoting more US and regional power involvement in the South China Sea dispute. They will need to tread carefully to avoid deepening the dispute: China is now able to exercise influence, including through trade and investment, over the Asia-Pacific region in ways that an economically weakened US can no longer match.
The bilateral agreement between the Philippines and Vietnam, and Japan’s and India’s new strategic and commercial commitments to the South China Sea will likely embolden ASEAN country claimants. But any indication that the US is orchestrating intra-ASEAN bilateral alliances and more Japanese and Indian involvement specifically to contain China’s power risks a backlash to which Washington will be expected by its ASEAN allies to respond in kind.
Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (www.planetnext.net), an association of journalists committed to the concept of “information for change”.
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