Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea
Image Credit: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea


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-à-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 Beijing’s 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 China’s 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 China’s nine-dashed line. The claimants had to that point sought to manage the dispute through regional mechanisms and bilateral talks. Not surprisingly, then, Manila’s move has irked Beijing, which has been insistent on not internationalizing the dispute. While it may be premature to assess Manila’s 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-à-vis China’s increasing assertiveness in the SCS.

Vietnam’s strategies are shaped by its history, economy and geographical proximity with China. Vietnam’s economy is highly reliant on its trade and investments with China and this dependency limits Vietnam’s 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 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 Beijing’s 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 Manila’s 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 Manila’s arbitration bid and may reshape its strategies accordingly. Given Manila’s 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 Beijing’s sweeping SCS claims.

April 4, 2014 at 14:30

There are so many heroes in the Philippines stand off against Beijing in the dispute regarding the West Philippine Sea. I will miss some of them but I specifically applaud President Pinoy Aquino, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert de Rosario, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza, the marines depending and occupying
Ayungin Shoal through BRP Sierra Madre and the people that re-supplied them.

The Philippines should continue to claim what is legitimately the Philippines. I understand that China has to feed its own people but the Philippines also has to feed its millions.

I applaud President Aquino for pointing out the similarity between China’s actions and Hitler’s actions when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. I do not want the Philippines to be a sacrificial pawn in big power politics which is likely to happen if China is not blocked now. China is still militarily and economically weaker than the US. They are still building their second aircraft carrier. Sometime in the future when they are strong economically and militarily, the rest of the world cannot do anything.

I applaud Japan, Australia and the US for being on the Philippine side. I am disappointed with Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and the ASEAN nations for not backing the Philippines.

With respect to the Philippines, China does not want to abide with UNCLOS (United Nations Convention On Law Of The Sea) because they know they will lose unless UNCLOS is swayed by big power politics. China wants bilateral agreement because they are stronger than the smaller nations.

Senator Angara has maps showing that the area belongs to the Philippines when Spain ceded the Philippines to the US. India does not claim that they own everything in the Indian Ocean. Why is China claiming they own everything in the China Sea (West Philippine Sea)?

December 1, 2013 at 03:02

Vietnam needs to get out of Laos! Ethnic division and massacre has torn it’s neighbors and people apart. Vietnam are as aggressive as China. They are melding with the U.S and the American people that’s all!

argy bargi
November 24, 2013 at 00:10

send in the ROYAL NAVY!

old fashioned way is best to control china!

Stiff Tran
November 23, 2013 at 18:21

@Little Helmsman: I dont know where were you born or lived, but if you still call yourself Vietnamese, stop embarassing yourself, your own country and its people. Stop complaining, crying and do something for your country. I am a Vietnamese, i ‘ve studied in UK for 5 years, so my opinions are under the influence of both views.

First, i am really not a supporter of communitism, i fully understand the downside of its policy and its dictatorship. But let s be fair, Vietnam had been through 2 huge wars against France and America for nearly 100 years, the country was destroyed miserably. It has only started to developt since 1986 after the “Doi Moi” renovation. From 1986 to 2013, from zero to what we have to day, Clearly results are not too bad as citizens’ lives have been improved significantly, and the GDP growth rate of Vn’s economy was belong to the top fastest of the world for many years.

2nd: I dont deny the fact that Vietnamese communitism made many terrible mistake especially right after the war. But it is becoming better and better recently. Corruption, unfair judgement, crimes are still there. But perhap if you still think that Vn is a primitive country, low tech, unfreely speaking, you better take one vacation to come to Vn to see how it is nowadays. After 5 years studying in UK, I need no time to adapt to Vietnamese life style since the differences are not too much.

Vietnamese are well-known for their behavor against their old enemies, France, US, Japan… We never forget the past but we don’t live with it. American guys are always welcome to visit Vietnam. So open your mind, no matter what VC did to your family, it is the past. Move on and do something good for the country.

December 20, 2013 at 06:46

Don’t forget “scorched-earth policy” by China

November 21, 2013 at 10:00

@Little Helmsman. The letter from Pham Van Dong to China was written in 1974, prior to Chinese invasion to the islands which were controlled by South Vietnam gov. At the time, it did not belong to North Vietnam.

November 6, 2013 at 00:49

When I stumbled recently with Philippines former Speaker Jose de Venecia, I asked him about his take on China building a concrete barriers at the Scarborough Shoals which is just near Zambales Peninsula.

“There is no physical evidence that they are putting barriers. These could be rocks. There are no confirmed statements from the Philippines armed forces or the Philippine government. I think they are all rocks. But I don’t know, “Speaker de Venecia, who just arrived from Azerbaijan as observer of the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International that he heads explained to me.

In September 13, 2013 Defense News of the Gannet Company published that “Manila has expressed concern over the discovery of 75 squares concrete blocks found near the entrance of the Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea but China has claimed as sovereign territory. Manila is accusing China of laying the foundation for a permanent facility in violation of international maritime law and ignoring Manila’s call for international arbitration for a peaceful resolution”.

The same news website said: “However, it is still unclear if the concrete blocks will be used to tether fishing boats or be used as the foundation of a facility, Thayer said.

“First of all, I think we should not jump to conclusions,” said Ian Storey, a maritime specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Despite claims by Manila, “this is not the typical pattern of Chinese construction,” which normally begins with “wooden structures on stilts; then octagonal wooden structures, and then a concrete fortification?”

“The photographs provided by Manila show what appears to be a “random pattern of concrete blocks scattered around the reef,” and it is “not immediately obvious that these blocks can or will be used as the foundations for a Chinese structure.”

“One school of thoughts is that the blocks were dropped by Chinese fishermen and used to tie up their boats”

Speaker de Venecia told me what the Philippines and China would do is a comprehensive joint exploration of the disputed area

“That is when we need a joint fishery for us to prevent confrontation in the sea. Secondly, we need a joint exploration and joint development for the hydro carbon and gas so that both sides of claimants should benefit”.

Proposed partnership between China and the Philippines has precedence in Europe

The former five-time Speaker explained to me before at his coastal mansion in Dagupan City about his formula that was not new since it was tested already by Great Britain, Germany, and Norway when I asked  him of a precedence of this partnership formula in my 2011 meeting with him. Excerpts of that conversation:

Mortz C. Ortigoza (MCO): Is there a precedent model of your consortium’s formula?
Jose de Venecia (JDV): Just like that in the North Sea after World War II, England is here (as he lifted the empty coffee cup and the sandwich of the interviewee to put on the other parts of the table to emphasize his point). This is England; the oil field is here in Ecofisk in the North Sea. They took a median line partition so the oil flows to Stavanger in Norway. The oil is in Teesside in England. And the natural gas goes to Crimea, German. I landed here in the Ecofisk which is above 20 stories high. The platforms from the sea, very stormy seas but (they were composed of) hundreds of oil wells! And siguro mga (Just like) several stories high buildings and platforms from the sea.
MCO: So nobody own these areas? The consortium owns them?
JDV: They have agreed. This part belongs to Norway! (Lifting again the sandwich and coffee cup of the interviewer by putting them to another part of the table to emphasize his point)This part belongs to England! This part belongs to Germany! In the meantime we jointly developed.
MCO: Is the North Sea’s model the only model the claimants in the Spratly’s can replicate?
JDV: Puwedi nating gawin ito( We can copy it). This is one model. The other model is that we will drill together and the profit we split. You see? So we shelve the issue of sovereignty. This is the formula that will solve the problems of China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Therefore that will solve the problem between China and Vietnam in the Paracel. This (in) the Spratly claim, Vietnam went to war over there a dozen years ago. This is the same formula that should be used because (by) Japan in Diaoyu Strait, what the Chinese call the Senkaku Strait. This is the third formula that could be used on the Sea of Japan and the East Sea, between Japan and South Korea.

 (You can accessed the entirety of this Q & A at

Will U.S Block any Bilateral Talk between Ph and China?

Since his wife Congresswoman Maria Georgina de Venecia excitedly called him to come at the stage for pictorial with Mayor Fernandez and members of the city council, I failed to ask him about his take on the scheme of the Philippines and the United States government to build a mini-Subic at Oyster Bay in Palawan – a military strategical location where the Philippine government spent half a billion pesos already in building it because of its proximity to the disputed islets and water in Scarborough shoals and Spratly Islets.

In case the talks between China and Vietnam and China and Brunei bear fruits, would this give the United States goose bumps as the Philippines would emulate it especially with de Venecia at the sideline pressuring his country with reasons and precedence to follow suit?

 Would Uncle Sam pressure the Philippines too not to capitulate with the come-on of China (psst, the Sinos this year got a U.S $ 189.3 billion foreign aid for good will with other countries that want to have economic and political intercourse with her) and the insistence of Speaker Joe for bilateral talk by dangling more economic quotas in the huge U.S market or more military hand me down goodies just for the Flips to maintain its indispensable tactical alliance with her in the oil rich South China Sea?

Little Helmsman
October 31, 2013 at 03:26

@ mark vuong,

Making more irrelevant personal comments about the poster and not the message?  Hmmm…VC reasoning ability is at 4th grade level I think.  But then again most VC leaders only attain the 4th grade level of education so that's why they were gullible enough to believe a European fairy tale written by a bearded Marx.  

Making personal insults toward another poster does not serve your cause it just shows the the ineptitude of a Communist system of education which has no relevance in a free market economy.  Did you know even in Vietnam, no employer would want to hire anyone who majored in Marxist Leninist – Ho Chi Minh study?  How about that for a laugh?  

I think the Vietnamese who fought the commies in Vietnam had the last laugh because at least they survived and they were never re-educated to become a commie.  Their ideas and convictions remain solid.  Now compare that to turd world Viet Cong.  Viet Cong had to Doi Moi which means they had to invite American, Japanese, S. Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese, and Viet Kieu capitalists back into Vietnam to teach children of Viet Cong the ways of capitalism and the free market because as we know when Viet Cong had a Soviet style centrally planned economy, Vietnam was unable to grow rice, produce any goods for export or anything except Ho Chi Minh sandals made out of used tires.  That is the extent of Viet Cong manufacturing prowess.  It is a trademark and brand of Viet Cong.  

It is just a matter of time when Viet Cong corrupt rule fall from the sky since we all know how sons and daughters of Viet Cong are the biggest thieves and crooks in Vietnam.  This impunity has a way of rallying the populace from its stupor.  Mark my words, baby, the chicken will come home to roost!

As I see it, Viet Cong, have nothing lefto offer besides a failed dictatorship with a cheap copy cat flag of China.  Vietnam people have already seen what Viet Cong have done in power.  Viet Cong created an inhuman dictatorship.  After 50 years in the north and 38 years in the south, Viet people have already seen what Viet Cong have to offer.  But the outside world is so enticing and Viet people have seen what life is like outside of VC Zoo.  They have seen with their own eyes how the civilized world have everything that VC Zoo does not.  So VC power is dwindling each day, while the voice calling for democracy is growing louder and bolder each day.  VC cannot put people into re-education camps or execute people with impunity anymore.  Those days are done.  

It is best to laugh best.  Viet Kieu who have survived and prosper in their new home in America, Canada, Australia, France, etc. are living meaningful lives and contribute to their new homeland.  They are part of the civilized world of democracy.  Their children have become professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, and civil servants.  While in VC land VC have to live in a turd world country that is deeply corrupt where VC schools are joke.  The reputation of Vietnam under VC is a joke.  There isn't one VC company making anything of value.  No one on earth has ever even heard of one VC company except as a source of ridicule and laughter.  

Sorry to burst your fantasy VC bubble but uncle Ho joke idea of communism only made Vietnam into backward joke while Asian countries that did not turn communist are rocketing to the space age of technology and innovation.  

That's reality!  The truth hurts sometimes.  

January 2, 2014 at 07:48

You are so bitterly wrong on every single fact and conclusion contained in your post.
First, I don’t think you know much about the writing of Marx. If you had, you would not have written so carelessly about those who subscribed to Marx’s writing. Marx’s writing was about the ills of capitalism, of the exploitation of workers, and of the income inequality caused by the excess of capitalism. Marx’s writing was not a fairy tale as you have mistakenly understood. It was a warning of an economic system based on profit maximization. Have you read the news lately? Talk of income inequality and social injustice has dominated the mainstream media in the West. You were bitterly wrong on count one, my good man.

Second, if the sole purpose of education is to get a job, no one would study literature, arts or social science. If all young people, according to your logic, would study engineering and computer science, then civilization, as you have so proudly embraced, would certainly disappear. The purpose of education, I must enlighten you, is to educate, open minds and transfer knowledge and ideas. It is not just job. If a young person wants to study Marxism, so what? That’s his or her choice. It is called freedom, which you, yourself, profess to loving it so much. You were bitterly wrong on count two.

Third, who are you to speak for all Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam? Who are you to say that their ideas and conviction remain solid? It’s preposterous to say what you have said. You wrote about Vietnam’s PAST economic performance. Here is the fact about Vietnam’s export of rice. It’s second in the world. Vietnam’s GDP has averaged 5-7% growth rate in the past 15 years. The number of Vietnamese living in poverty has been reduced significantly, according to the UN. Again, you were bitterly wrong on count three, my good man.

The rest of your post was just nonsense. The language and the tone was indicative of a bitter person. It does not merit my response.

February 23, 2014 at 15:42

well stated, I support 100% what you wrote because the are all correct .

October 30, 2013 at 18:11

WHAT?China treat SEA as brothers and are willing to share resources?????or is it the other way around.China instead is using soft power to intimidate and pressure smaller SEA countries inorder for them to bow down to CHINA and force them to share their resources to the resource-needy Chinese Industries. The Philippines, being the underdog in this fight in terms of its military and political influence  still manage to have its "balls" to stand up for what is right and just.

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