Walden Bellow, a representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the Philippine House of Representatives, recently wrote an opinion-editorial in Foreign Policy in Focus (March 18) entitled, “A Budding Alliance: Vietnam and the Philippines Confront China.”
Bello argued that, “The Philippines and Vietnam are natural allies in their common struggle against China’s drive for hegemony in East Asia. Already partners in ASEAN, the two are likely to be driven closer together by Beijing’s increasingly brazen displays of power as it enforces its claim to some 80 percent of the South China Sea.”
The Philippines and Vietnam share convergent views and concerns over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. This has led to intense diplomatic interaction and some coordination in multilateral institutions, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A review of defense interaction reveals that over the last five years, progress has been spotty though gradual, but prospects for an alliance still remain over the horizon.
The Philippines and Vietnam reached a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Defense Cooperation on October 26, 2010. The MOU was signed in Hanoi by Vietnam’s Minister of National Defense, General Phung Quang Thanh, and the Philippines’ Secretary of Defense, Voltaire Gazmin, on the sidelines of the state visit by President Benigno Aquino.
The MOU contained generally worded provisions for reciprocal visits by military delegations, information exchanges on counter-terrorism, cooperation in military education and training, search and rescue assistance, and collaboration in the development of military equipment and technology. A joint technical working group was set up to implement the MOU.
A year later, the Philippines and Vietnam signed an agreement to strengthen the implementation of maritime security between the Philippine Coast Guard and the Vietnam Marine Police (since renamed Vietnam Coast Guard). This agreement was drawn up to address problems caused by the encroachment of fishermen into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the other party. The agreement also included a provision on public education of fishermen to respect EEZ boundaries.
A major boost in navy-to-navy cooperation occurred in March 2012 during discussions held in Hanoi between Philippine Navy Flag Officer in Command, Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, and Vietnam People’s Army Navy Commander, Admiral Nguyen Van Hien.
Admirals Pama and Hien signed a MOU on the Enhancement of Mutual Cooperation and Information Sharing between the two navies. The MOU included a provision for a hotline between the operational headquarters of their respective coast guards to monitor maritime incidents such as piracy and incursions into territorial waters.
The MOU also included possible cooperation in shipbuilding. The latter resulted from a request by Admiral Pama following his visit to the Naval Shipyard X46 that housed state of the art facilities for building and repair of warships and other naval vessels.
The two navy chiefs signed an agreement on Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) on Personnel Interaction in the Vicinity of Southeast Cay and the Northeast Cay Island between the Vietnam People’s Navy and Philippine Navy. Under the terms of the SOP, the two sides agreed to conduct coordinated maritime patrols in their overlapping waters.
China’s Foreign Ministry immediately warned against any exercises between the Vietnamese and Philippine navies. As a result, it appears that the idea of joint naval patrols was shelved in favor of football and basketball matches – or “fun games” – between naval personnel stationed in the Spratly Islands.
On July 23, 2013, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Quoc Khanh, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, received Lt. Gen Noel A. Coballes, Commanding Officer of the Philippines Army, in Hanoi. They reviewed progress in implementing the 2010 MOU and agreed to host army-to-army dialogues.
In late July-early August 2013, Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh held the seventh meeting of the Vietnam-Philippines Joint Committee for Bilateral Cooperation in Manila. This meeting reviewed implementation of the agreement on bilateral cooperation covering the period 2011 to 2016. These talks touched on cooperation in dealing with China over South China Sea territorial disputes, maritime security cooperation including information related to illegal intrusions.
In late August, Secretary Gazmin received his Vietnamese counterpart, General Thanh, in Manila to review progress in defense cooperation. Discussions between Gazmin and Thanh included the security situation in the South China Sea, the U.S. policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, and future cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
According to a statement released by the Department of National Defense, since 2010 “defense relations between the two countries have progressed through high-level visits, personnel exchanges and information sharing” and reflects “the commitment of both countries to enhance cooperation in jointly developing their defense capabilities…”
The two ministers agreed to renew the 2010 MOU on defense cooperation and to initiate a defense policy dialogue at deputy minister level.
As a follow up to the ministerial meeting, Vietnam’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, received Maj. Gen. John S. Bonafos, Commander of the Special Operations Command, in Hanoi on October 9. They agreed to enhance cooperation between their navies, air forces, armies and coast guards. No specific details were released.
On March 21 this year, Vice Admiral Jose Luis M. Alano, led a Philippine Navy delegation to Hanoi. Alano expressed interest in joint training of naval graduates at the bachelor degree level. Defense Minister General Thanh suggested that the two naval forces should raise cooperation in sharing intelligence through hotlines in their respective defense ministries, joint Search and Rescue exercises, and professional military education and training.
This review of Philippine-Vietnam defense relations since 2010 reveals that cooperation is progressing but at a rudimentary level. The two countries have not yet held practical military exercises that would enhance interoperability. The Philippines is about to sign an agreement to enhance defense cooperation with the United States. Vietnam has been reluctant to move from naval engagement activities to joint exercises involving the exchange of combat skills. In sum, the Philippines and Vietnam will develop close political-diplomatic ties to counter Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. But there is no prospect that present defense cooperation will grow into an informal anti-China military alliance.