Competition deepens in the South China Sea
By Roberto Tofani
HANOI - In the run-up to this year's East Asia Summit (EAS), the Philippines
and Vietnam have sent a preemptive joint message: they are not willing to yield
to rising Chinese pressure on unresolved South China Sea territorial issues.
The new loose alliance between the two Association of Southeast Asia Nations
(ASEAN) members aims to enhance their strategic cooperation and has effectively
invited other regional powers to help counterbalance China's claims in the
brewing multilateral dispute.
The EAS will take place in mid-November in Bali, Indonesia, and for the first
time will also include the United States and Russia. South China Sea tensions
are expected to feature prominently at
the multilateral meeting, which will see several world leaders, including
United States President Barack Obama, in attendance.
In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam have taken a similar two-way
diplomatic approach by strengthening relations with China's traditional
regional competitors, including Japan and India, while at the same time
maintaining dialogue and growing commercial ties with Beijing.
At the same time, the ASEAN neighbors have strengthened their bilateral
security ties in an apparent bid to counterbalance China's rising naval power.
On October 27, Philippine President Benigno Aquino signed several maritime
pacts with his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang, including naval
agreements to share information, respond to natural disasters, prevent
smuggling and piracy, and protect marine resources in the South China Sea.
Sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea is contested by China, the
Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. In the past six months,
tensions have spiked through incidents at sea while at the same time claimants
have released a series of joint statements aimed at finding a common and
peaceful solution to their overlapping territorial claims. Many areas of the
South China Sea are believed to be rich in fossil fuels and are important to
regional navigation and trade.
By joining forces, the Philippines and Vietnam aim to enhance their negotiating
leverage vis-a-vis China. Beijing has repeatedly stated its preference to
pursue bilateral agreements with smaller claimant countries while the latter
have pushed for a binding agreement through multilateral channels led by the
During the 18th ASEAN Regional Forum held in July, Chinese Foreign Minister
Yang Jiechi and his ASEAN counterparts signed a document setting out agreed
measures to make the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South
China Sea more binding. The new eight-point document laid out guidelines for
the implementation and agreement by consensus of future joint cooperation
activities that lead to the "eventual realization" of a formal code of conduct
in the maritime area.
The agreement received mixed reviews. Philippine officials said that the new
DOC guidelines won't do enough to alleviate tensions. Vietnamese officials
highlighted their coordination with the meeting's host, Indonesia, and spoke
about the "success" of the multilateral forum.
Tong Xiaoling, China's ambassador to ASEAN, asserted that the grouping is not a
party to the territorial conflict "so a document reached by the two sides
cannot solve the disputes". He stressed that the issue could be resolved only
through a "bilateral framework".
Amid these divergent views, Philippine President Aquino traveled to Beijing in
early September for a meeting with his counterpart Hu Jintao. The five-day
visit was dogged by South China Sea tensions, but the two leaders reiterated
their commitment "to addressing the disputes through peaceful dialogue, to
maintain continued regional peace, security, stability and an environment
conducive to economic progress".
Later that same month, during a September 27 meeting in Tokyo, Aquino
demonstrated lack of faith in that cooperative rhetoric by boosting naval ties
with Japan - also in the name of upholding peace and stability in the South
China Sea. The day after the announcement, Japan and ASEAN defense officials
held a high-profile meeting on South China Sea cooperation and consultation.
Relations between Japan and ASEAN have "matured from dialogue to one where
Japan plays a more specific cooperative role", said Kimito Nakae, Japan's vice
minister of defense, after the meeting.
Nakae was also cited in press reports saying that tensions over oil exploration
and military outposts in the South China Sea would require more cooperation
from the US and India to manage. On that cue, Vietnamese President Sang met
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met on October 12 and signed an oil and
gas exploration agreement between India's ONGC Videsh and PetroVietnam in a
South China Sea area claimed by Hanoi but contested by China.
Predictably, the agreement was not welcomed in Beijing. "India's energy
strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool," said a front-page
commentary in the state-owned newspaper China Energy News, published by the
Communist Party's mouthpiece People's Daily, in response to the joint
The energy deal was concluded one day after Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV),
general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong arrived in Beijing for bilateral
discussions. Trong concluded a bilateral agreement seeking to contain South
China Sea-related disputes. At the same time, at the end of October, Vietnamese
Defense Minister Gen Phung Quang Thanh and his Japanese counterpart Yasuo
Ichikawa signed a new memorandum enhancing bilateral defense cooperation.
While Manila's hardening policy towards China is backed by its historical
alliance with the US, Hanoi has been somewhat more ambiguous in its position.
On one hand, Vietnam's foreign policy is based on the so-called "friends to
all" principle; on the other, the ambiguity reflects internal divisions inside
the ruling CPV and government, according to a well-placed CPV source who spoke
with Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.
While CPV chief Trong is viewed as pro-Chinese, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung
is thought to be more pro-West in outlook and keen to improve relations and
strategic cooperation with the US. Sang is seen to hold the balance of power
and recent moves indicate that he too is leaning towards the West, the CPV
The US is responding - at least rhetorically - to those strategic calls. During
his first tour in Asia, newly appointed US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
reaffirmed the US's strategic role in the region at an annual meeting of ASEAN
defense ministers held in late October. "I told them that I would do everything
possible ... to develop a relationship in which the security of this region
will be strengthened for the future," Panetta said.
His statement echoed a policy concept developed by US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton calling for more US strategic involvement outlined in a recent
essay published in Foreign Policy. In that report, Clinton wrote, "The United
States has moved to fully engage the region's multilateral institutions, such
as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation (APEC)." Similar statements promoting more multilateralism
to solve the dispute are expected during Obama's visit to the EAS on November
The Philippines and Vietnam are in their own ways promoting more US and
regional power involvement in the South China Sea dispute. They will need to
tread carefully to avoid deepening the dispute: China is now able to exercise
influence, including through trade and investment, over the Asia-Pacific region
in ways that an economically weakened US can no longer match.
The bilateral agreement between the Philippines and Vietnam, and Japan's and
India's new strategic and commercial commitments to the South China Sea will
likely embolden ASEAN country claimants. But any indication that the US is
orchestrating intra-ASEAN bilateral alliances and more Japanese and Indian
involvement specifically to contain China's power risks a backlash to which
Washington will be expected by its ASEAN allies to respond in kind.
Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast
Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (www.planetnext.net), an
association of journalists committed to the concept of "information for
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