On November 10, Vietnam and the Philippines conducted the fourth iteration of their naval personnel interactions on Northeast Cay in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The exchange spotlighted an ongoing intra-ASEAN confidence-building activity underway among the two sides in the disputed waters even amid the continued uncertainties in the broader bilateral relationship.
As I have noted before in these pages, until the inauguration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016, Vietnam and the Philippines had been significantly strengthening their maritime collaboration as well as their broader relationship for several reasons, including China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Both sides had set up a range of mechanisms, including hotlines and working groups, to facilitate confidence-building, and they also elevated ties to the level of a strategic partnership in 2015.
One of the outcomes of the growing strategic convergence between the two sides in the maritime realm was a 2012 protocol for bilateral naval exchanges on Southwest Cay, currently occupied by Vietnam, and Northeast Cay, occupied by the Philippines. At the time, the interaction between the two countries was hailed as an example of intra-ASEAN confidence building in the South China Sea at a time of heightened tensions. Under the new initiative, both Manila and Hanoi had agreed to rotate naval personnel exchanges between their respective features, with a series of confidence-building measures including sports activities as well as substantive information sharing.
The first of these exchanges was conducted in Vietnam-controlled Southwest Cay back in June 2014, shortly after China had placed an oil rig inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and the second occurred in late May 2015 in Philippine-controlled Northeast Cay. While no interaction was held in 2016, the exchanges resumed again last June, with the usual mix of confidence-building measures we have seen in previous ones as well.
The interaction itself included a mix of sports and cultural events, such as an artistic exchange, football, volleyball, tug of war, and a sack race. But there were also more substantive activities as well. Part of that was information sharing in several areas, such as search and rescue, disaster relief, maritime security, and illegal, underreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This was accompanied by efforts carried out in the maritime domain as well, with crew members from ships practicing international maritime flag signaling, checking suspected ships, and conducting search and rescue activities.
Vietnam’s defense ministry also said that both sides had reached consensus on the sorts of activities they would conduct in the fifth edition of the exchange. While few specifics were offered, including the timeframe of the exchange itself, the areas of coverage appeared to be similar to ones in the past, including information sharing and facilitating better coordination in search and rescue operations.