On January 30, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario hosted his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh in Manila for the inaugural meeting of the Joint Commission on Concluding a Strategic Partnership. According to a Joint Statement issued after the talks, the two ministers agreed “on the basis of amity, equality, mutual respect and cooperation… to elevate the level and intensity of bilateral exchanges between the two countries.”
The bulk of the Joint Statement focused on the South China Sea and expressed concern “over the ongoing massive land reclamation activities that pose threats to the peace and stability in the region as well as to the lives of many people across the various coastal states.” Del Rosario and Minh agreed that the “concerned Parties” should adhere to the ASEAN-China Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, conclude a Code of Conduct, exercise restraint, and resolve disputes peacefully in accord with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It appears likely that a formal strategic partnership agreement could be reached this year. Del Rosario noted that the strategic partnership with Vietnam would be the Philippines’ third after the United States and Japan.
The Philippines and the U.S. became treaty allies in 1951. In 2011, the Philippines and Japan upgraded their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership. In late 2014, the Philippines and South Korea initiated discussions on a comprehensive strategic partnership.
Vietnam has already negotiated thirteen strategic partnership agreements. Its first agreement was with the Russian Federation in 2001. This was followed by agreements with Japan (2006), India (2007), China (2008), South Korea and Spain (2009), the United Kingdom (2010), and Germany (2011). In 2013, Vietnam negotiated an additional five strategic partnership agreements with Italy, France, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. Vietnam’s on-going negotiations with the Philippines represent a determined diplomatic effort to shore up Vietnam’s relations with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Vietnam and the Philippines established diplomatic relations in 1976 and initiated a series of high-level exchanges two years later. Three Vietnamese prime ministers (Pham Van Dong, Vo Van Kiet, and Nguyen Tan Dung) and two presidents (Le Duc Anh and Tran Duc Luong) visited the Philippines between 1978 and 2007. Four Filipino presidents (Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Aquino) visited Vietnam in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2010, respectively.
In 1994, the two sides set up a Joint Committee on Economics, Science, and Technology as the initial framework for bilateral relations. This evolved into a Bilateral Cooperation Committee that held its seventh meeting in Mania in late July/early August 2013. The eighth meeting is scheduled for Hanoi in 2015.
The year 2002 marked a turning point. During President Arroyo’s visit to Hanoi the two sides approved a Framework on Bilateral Cooperation in the First Quarter of the 21st Century and Beyond. Bilateral relations were put under the framework of the five-year Plan of Action (2007-10) adopted in November 2002.
Growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years has led to a growing convergence of strategic interests between Manila and Hanoi. For example, in October 2010, Vietnam and the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation.
In 2011, Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang paid an official visit to the Philippines. Sang and Aquino agreed to enhance information sharing and cooperation between their two navies and to establish a hotline between their coast guards. A second Philippines-Vietnam Plan of Action was adopted for the 2011-16 period that covered thirteen areas of cooperation.
In 2013 Vietnam’s Minister of National Defense visited Manila for the first time. In March last year the two countries held their first navy-to-navy staff talks and agreed to increase exchanges in sharing intelligence, naval technology and training. In June, Vietnam hosted “goodwill games” with Filipino military personnel on Southwest Cay, and in November two Vietnamese navy frigates paid their first port call to Manila.
In December 2014, Vietnam filed a statement of interest with the Permanent Court of Arbitration implicitly backing the Philippines’ claims against China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The “China factor” was also evident during the visit to the Philippines by Vietnam’s prime minister in May 2014. After talks between Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and President Aquino, Dung declared:
“The two sides are determined to oppose China’s violations (in the South China Sea) and called on countries and the international community to strongly condemn China and demanding China to immediately end its above said violations and fully, strictly, observe international law.”
The two government leaders reaffirmed that maritime cooperation was a pillar of bilateral ties. They therefore agreed to continue regular exchanges through their Joint Committee on Sea and Ocean Cooperation and the Group of Legal Experts on Marine Issues. The two leaders renewed their commitment to carry out existing agreements on defense and security and step up cooperation between their logistics and defense industry agencies. They also agreed to accelerate negotiations on an Extradition Agreement.
Aquino and Dung identified future areas of cooperation including: trade, finance, banking and services, fisheries, marine science research, hydrometeorology, marine environment protection, health, science and technology, tourism, culture, education, and people-to-people exchanges. Finally, Aquino and Dung agreed to set up a Joint Working Committee charged with drawing up a road map for an agreement on a strategic partnership. Their respective foreign ministers were assigned to co-chair this committee.
In November 2014, Presidents Aquino and Sang met on the sidelines of the 22nd Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Beijing. They agreed to convene the first meeting of the Joint Commission on Concluding a Strategic Partnership.
The Philippine-Vietnam strategic partnership currently is a work in progress. Both sides reportedly are trying to reach common ground on what should be included in a strategic partnership agreement. According to two staffers at the Philippines’ Foreign Service Institute:
“The term strategic partnership is oftentimes a misunderstood concept as it is equated to a security-orientated agreement between two states, directed at certain parties or states. It is, in fact, an elevation of bilateral exchanges between two states that creates room for bilateral strategic dialogue mechanisms that are conducted at the ministerial-level. It is comprehensive and includes economic, functional and socio-cultural cooperation.”
The two authors sounded a note of caution in their conclusions:
“The Philippines’ basis for strategic partners is not merely convergent positions on strategic issues but also shared values and principles, which means a strategic partnership cannot be agreed upon on the basis of expediency. Vietnam and the Philippines need to further thresh this issue out or the proposed strategic partnership will be shallow and cannot be implemented when the diplomatic winds change.”
Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesperson Charles Jose noted at a press briefing on February 3 that the strategic partnership agreement was important because the Philippines and Vietnam “share common concerns in this region, especially when it comes to the South China Sea issue.” Rose identified this shared concern as “one of the moving forces” behind the planned partnership.
Both sides, however, want to broaden cooperation in order to avoid the appearance that the strategic partnership is a military pact by another name. Del Rosario stated, for example, “We believe a strategic partnership enhances the cooperation on a comprehensive basis.”
Areas of cooperation likely to be included in strategic partnership agreement include: agriculture, culture, diplomacy, economics, education, finance, investment, maritime security, marine environmental protection, oil spill preparedness search, people-to-people exchanges, political affairs, security, search and rescue, tourism and trade.
Currently there is not much depth to bilateral relations. For example, in 2009, foreign investment from the Philippines totaled $300 million in 43 projects, placing the Philippines 26th on Vietnam’s investment ladder. In 2001, there were only 500 Vietnamese students studying in the Philippines.
Two-way trade grew impressively from a low level of $541 million in 2000 to $2.2 billion in 2008. Vietnam’s exports of rice, ranging from 1.5 to 2 billion tons a year, form a central component of the trade relationship. But between 2008 and 2014, bilateral trade rose to only $2.8 billion. In January this year, the two foreign ministers agreed to reactivate a bilateral trade cooperation sub-committee to draft measures to raise two-way trade to a modest $3 billion by 2016.
Vietnam’s strategic partnership agreements include a clause on defense and security cooperation. The Philippines-Vietnam strategic partnership agreement very likely will have a defense and security clause with provisions for high-level defense visits, staff exchanges, naval goodwill port calls, information sharing, and joint training, exercises and naval patrols.
A Philippine Navy officer told Reuters, “We already have joint training and exercises with the U.S. military every year and we are looking forward to hold exercises with the Vietnamese navy.
According to Michaela Del Callar, when the Philippines and Vietnam reach agreement on a strategic partnership this will send “a signal that smaller claimant countries can bond together to increase their clout and collective strength in confronting China’s increasing assertion of its territorial claim in the South China Sea.”
Michael Mazza, a Research Fellow in Foreign and Defense Policies Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that a Philippines-Vietnam strategic partnership will raise two concerns in Beijing. First, a strategic partnership agreement will suggest to other South China Sea claimants “that they really could hammer out a deal if not for Chinese bellicosity. If Vietnam and the Philippines, two countries that have a substantial maritime territorial dispute, can carry out joint naval patrols, then disputes are no reason for rival maritime forces to constantly be at odds.”
Secondly, “a Vietnam-Philippines condominium could curtail Chinese freedom of action in the South China Sea,” Mazza argues. Manila and Hanoi could share maritime surveillance and reconnaissance information to better prepare for Chinese provocations, and perhaps deter China by depriving it of the element of surprise.
Closer defense and security cooperation between the Philippines and Vietnam, especially in the maritime domain, possibly could encourage the United States to participate in trilateral exercises. Vietnam could seek to leverage off the recently inaugurated U.S. Poseidon surveillance flights from the Philippines, for example.
If Japan decides to conduct reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea, quadrilateral cooperation in maritime domain awareness and security could result.
A future Philippines-Vietnam strategic partnership could serve as the basis for promoting multilateral maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea.