Why Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea are important for building confidence – The Diplomat


On June 22, Vietnam and the Philippines conducted the third iteration of their interactions with naval personnel on Southwest Cay in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The exchange, held by the two Southeast Asian claimants in the waters of the dispute over a feature previously owned by Manila but now controlled by Hanoi, is a reminder that such confidence-building measures continue between the two sides despite the changes. in the South China Sea. dynamics of the end.

As I pointed out in a previous article, in 2012 Vietnam and the Philippines, then the two most advanced Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea, agreed to a naval exchange protocol. on Southwest Cay, currently occupied by Hanoi and Northeast Cay, occupied by Manila (the two features are only a few miles apart), as part of their growing maritime collaboration in the face of growing assertion from China (see: “What’s Behind the Resumed Vietnam-Philippines South China Sea Activity”).

Although these exchanges took place in Southwest Cay and then Northeast Cay in June 2014 and May 2015 respectively, in 2016 they did not take place (as I noted, if they had, they would have been rather awkwardly produced just at the time of the transition from Aquino to Duterte, whose administration so far has struck an entirely different note despite aspects of political continuity) (See: “The truth about the blow of the sea South China ASEAN from Duterte ”). And then, on June 22, interaction between the two countries resumed in Southwest Cay.

The interaction itself has already generated its usual share of headlines, and one can quibble as to whether or not this technically constitutes a “cover” (it was never really officially canceled, it did all). just not happened when it had been before). Unsurprisingly, both governments have formally emphasized continuity in their assessments.

Still, it’s also important to pause and note the importance of such confidence-building measures in the context of the South China Sea disputes, where the headlines are typically dominated by a series of hot spots.

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First, as I pointed out earlier, confidence-building measures among Southeast Asian states in the maritime domain are important in themselves. Whether it’s the South China Sea or the Sulu Sea, despite the fact that many sensational accounts frame these waterways exclusively in the context of ASEAN-China relations or broader geopolitical developments, several states Southeast Asia are still in the process of accepting the management disputes that exist between them.

The Philippines and Vietnam are no exception to this reality. Indeed, one of the reasons why trading on Southwest Cay and Northeast Cay between the two parties has been well received by some in the region is that Manila and Hanoi are used to struggling to control both features.

But more broadly, it’s also important to note that maritime issues between Southeast Asian states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, are not limited to the South China Sea either. As officials on both sides continue to point out, the maritime domain is designed broadly enough to include other issues such as natural disaster preparedness, ship accident risk management, and search and rescue coordination. .

The various mechanisms that the two parties have put in place and are considering, from the new hotline between the two coast guards and the navies, to new working groups and committees on broader maritime issues, to increased visits and exchanges, were also considered with this broader conception in mind. Measures such as improving information-sharing agreements and strengthening communication are useful for a wide range of issues.

It is not just a diplomatic speech. To take just one specific example, the two sides are among many ASEAN countries trying to better manage fisheries issues between them. Although the focus here is often on the Indonesian policy of “sinking the ships”, dealing with this issue is actually much more complicated as it involves everything from bilateral fishing agreements to rescuing fishermen. Indeed, last month there was a fishing skirmish involving Vietnam and Indonesia which was largely reported.

Bearing witness to the two countries’ broad conception of the maritime agenda, the head of the Vietnamese delegation during this year’s interaction at Southwest Cay, the deputy commander of Naval Region 4, the Colonel-in-Chief Nguyen Viet Thuan, specifically noted during his remarks at the opening ceremony that the Vietnamese Navy had recently rescued a Filipino fisherman, who was among the 151 fishermen rescued from May 2015 to May 2017, as well as 119 people adrift in sea ​​and 16 vessels in distress.

Second, these confidence-building measures are also important as they can help build unity among Southeast Asian asylum seekers. Whether it is exchanges of naval personnel on South China Sea elements or working groups between ASEAN applicants, such movements over time can reduce the gaps that exist between applicants. themselves and help them present a more united front towards China, which has a habit of exacerbating divisions within the region.

This is especially the case with the Vietnam-Philippines naval personnel exchanges, as both sides have repeatedly stressed that they want the interaction to send a message that other ASEAN applicants are doing their part to put implements the 1992 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties. in the South China Sea (DoC) even though Beijing continues to violate the DoC and drags its feet on a binding code of conduct. (See: “Beware of Illusion of China-ASEAN Breakthroughs in the South China Sea”).

During this year’s interaction at Southwest Cay, Thuan’s opening remarks once again presented it as an effort not only to move forward with the implementation of agreements between the two navies in areas such as sharing. information, but also to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining peace and stability in southern China. Sea by implementing DOC.

Certainly, as I pointed out earlier, the importance of a single interaction must be overestimated, be it within the bilateral Vietnam-Philippines relationship or the broader strategic dynamic of the South China Sea.

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While this exchange has indeed resumed, the larger reality is that with the emergence of Duterte, the feverish discussions we have seen on things like a Philippines-Vietnam axis in the South China Sea and joint high-level patrols. level between the two countries have cooled, at least for now.

Indeed, for what it’s worth, the difference between the official Vietnamese and Filipino statements released so far on the interaction is quite striking in terms of the focus on the South China Sea, with that of the Philippine Naval Forces of the West (NAVFORWEST) remaining less on this angle and more on bilateral cooperation.

The two sides are also trying to protect their own interests in the South China Sea while forging cooperation and responding to Beijing overtures such as a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

However, the bigger picture is that, given the continuing tensions that we have seen periodically erupt between China and Vietnam as well as the foreseeable difficulties that Beijing and Manila have faced in resolving their differences, it is clear that the two Southeast Asian states still focus on working together even though they combine this cooperation with their own individual efforts as well as those directed against China and other great powers (see: “The Nixed China Meeting- Vietnam highlights the illusion of calm in the South China Sea ”).

These confidence-building measures deserve our attention. They are part of a more complex reality that often gets lost in the headlines. And more importantly, they’re just a small part of a larger effort to handle disputes that show little sign of ending anytime soon.


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