Features | Diplomacy | Security | Southeast Asia

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 for

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.

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The Philippines’ SCS strategy, meanwhile, is motivated by a perceived Chinese westward push at its expense. Despite long administering the largest features in the Spratlys, Manila’s military capabilities are limited. The occupation of Mischief Reef came about two years after the removal of the U.S. bases, and marked the point at which the much talked-about “China threat” became a reality. Since then, Beijing has intensified its fortifications and naval presence in the area. As a militarily disadvantaged state, Manila’s fallback rested on its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S.. But warming Sino-U.S. relations, especially on the economic front, may put limits on what Manila can expect from its traditional ally. The fear that a Sino-U.S. understanding on the SCS, wherein Washington tacitly acquiesces to Beijing consolidating its position in the semi-enclosed sea, may also become an emerging consideration, making it imperative for the Philippines to diversify its security partners to give it more room for independent action. Nonetheless, the U.S. remains important to the Philippines for trade and security, despite the ups and downs in relations. Manila closed the U.S. bases in Subic and Clark in 1991 but allowed U.S. forces to come back in 1999 through the Visiting Forces Agreement, and has since been a major ally in the war against terrorism. Manila is a natural partner in Washington’s rebalancing strategy. The Philippines is also strengthening ties with Japan, which has its own disputes with China, in the East China Sea.  This power web can help the Philippines absorb retaliatory measures from China, and as such may have emboldened Manila to take a stand against Beijing.

It might therefore be said that power arrangements and alignments dictate the strategies of Vietnam and the Philippines. Moreover, in contrast to Vietnam, the Philippines does not have a large trade and investment dependency with China, as the U.S. and Japan are still its primary primary trade and aid partners. True, Sino-Philippine economic ties have been growing, and certainly the Philippines felt the effects of China’s decision to curb banana imports and block tourism. However, the comparatively low level of economic engagement means that Chinese economic sanctions are not enough to make Manila bend, at least for now. For instance, the Philippines has been able to offset the loss of the Chinese market for its bananas by exporting to the U.S.

Nevertheless, the rise of China and relative decline of the U.S. will continue to cast a long shadow over the SCS. Although some ASEAN countries have welcomed the U.S. rebalancing, most have developed deep economic ties with China over the years. The SCS thus has the potential to become a divisive issue within the regional grouping. This creates the impression among some Philippine leaders that ASEAN may no longer be a reliable or effective forum for engaging China on the SCS issue. Countries that have traditional and unresolved disputes with China, like Japan and India, may extend some support to smaller SCS claimants, but their commitment when push comes to shove remains to be seen.

The SCS has strategic, security, economic and political importance for both the Philippines and Vietnam. Both countries see their claimed SCS areas as vital elements of national security, important trade channels, traditional fishing grounds and a source of indigenous offshore energy resources, not to mention as integral components of their territory. However, particular historical, economic and politico-security considerations have prompted the two countries to develop divergent SCS strategies, especially in terms of dealing with China.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is pursuing his MA in Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines’ Asian Center. His areas of interests include maritime and energy security issues, China-ASEAN and Philippines-China relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Amruta Karambelkar is pursuing an M.Phil I at the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies I, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her area of interest is Vietnam. She can be reached at [email protected].