Philippines, Vietnam take China hedges
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Soon after the US and China used a high-level strategic and economic dialogue in mid-July to underscore the importance both attach to their relationship, the Philippines and Vietnam made their own pitch to court great power support amid ongoing and, in certain maritime areas, intensifying territorial conflicts with China.
While Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang made a symbolic visit to the White House on July 25, an occasion where both countries agreed to move closer towards a full-fledged strategic partnership, the Philippines welcomed Japan's increasingly
emboldened leader, Shinzo Abe, who has vowed to strengthen Tokyo's strategic depth in Southeast Asia.
Despite growing efforts by regional actors, namely China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to rein in brewing maritime conflicts in the South China Sea, the evolving disputes represent an intractable challenge to regional security and threaten to escalate into full-blown conflict.
China recently agreed to restart negotiations over a code of conduct (CoC) to peacefully resolve maritime disputes, but both the Philippines and Vietnam have pressured China to address the issue more expediently and within the framework of international law. At the same time, they have both welcomed a deeper US military commitment and expanded strategic ties with a resurgent Japan as their primary hedging tactic.
Sang to Washington
Sang's visit came after President Barack Obama extended an invitation to his Vietnamese counterpart in early July, reflecting Washington's desire to place Hanoi at the center of its "pivot" strategy in East Asia. The visit - only the second to Washington by a Vietnamese head of state since the normalization of ties in 1995 - was exceptional in both its tone and timing.
It also came on the heels of Sang's trip to China in late June, when the two sides signed symbolic agreements, including the establishment of a hotline to manage tensions in the South China Sea.
More crucially, Sang's visit came in the upbeat wake of Obama's confab with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands Ranch in California. Along with the strategic and economic dialogue held in July, the meetings stoked fears of strategic alienation among the US's East Asian allies and sent mixed messages about America's commitment to deterring Chinese maritime assertiveness.
Against that background, Sang's visit carried a number of key strategic implications:
Vietnam has emerged as an increasingly important component within the US's 21st century strategy for the Pacific;
Washington is intent on elevating its bilateral ties with Hanoi into a full-fledged strategic partnership, including an eventual removal of its arms embargo;
Vietnam is determined to utilize its diversified set of foreign relations, especially those with the world's sole superpower in Washington, to keep its giant northern neighbor at bay.
Recognizing the "extraordinarily complex history" between the two countries, Obama and Sang focused on major strategic issues such as trade and security. On top of their agenda was the re-affirmation of both sides' commitment to finalize the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) preferential trade pact, which faces stiff competition from the China-backed Comprehensive Economic Partnership for East Asia.
Although China remains Vietnam's top trade partner, economic relations with the US have flourished in recent years. Determined to reassert US centrality in East Asia, Obama has been at pains to strengthen the economic pillar of his administration's "pivot" strategy, thus his emphasis on expressing both Washington's and Hanoi's commitment to "the ambitious goal of completing [the TPP] before the end of the year".
To placate his Republican Party critics who have accused the White House of acting soft on Vietnam's human rights record, Obama reportedly had some pointed discussions with his Vietnamese counterpart. It was clear to most onlookers, however, that strategic concerns topped both leaders' agenda.
With the agreement to establish a "comprehensive partnership" with the US, a step above the mere normalization of bilateral ties, Sang's visit marked a new milestone towards developing an institutionalized strategic partnership, as trade and security issues pull the two one-time adversaries closer together than ever before.
In a telling sign of Vietnam's determination to solicit Washington's support for its claims in the South China Sea, Sang reached out to multiple centers of influence in the US capital, ranging from the White House - where Obama called for calm and non-use of force in resolving disputes - to both houses of congress, the State Department and the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank.
Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, eagerly welcomed the Vietnamese leader, praising how far the two countries had come since the dark years of confrontation and how the future bodes well for bilateral relations. "Forty-five years ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting in the fields and rivers of Vietnam," Kerry remarked during his meeting with Sang. "Today hundreds of thousands of us are visiting its market places and its historic sites. So we have come a long way."
In response, Sang made a full-scale endorsement for deepening bilateral ties, emphasizing in particular how his country believes "major powers, including the United States, have an important role and responsibility in dealing with hotspots in the region such as the East Sea - East China Sea" and how Vietnam "always attaches importance to the relations with the United States, which [it] views as a leading partner".
During Sang's speech at CSIS, he re-affirmed Vietnam's commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea along the Indonesia-sponsored "Six-Point Principles" and the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, he made it clear that Vietnam continues to oppose China's sweeping maritime claims, including the "nine-dashline doctrine" - referring to how China demarcates its claims in the South China Sea - and how it will firmly stand by its own territorial claims.
"We cannot find any legal foundation or scientific basis for such a claim and therefore it is the consistent policy of Vietnam to oppose the nine-dash-line plan by China," Sang said, underscoring the importance Vietnam places on multilateral mechanisms to resolve the disputes.
Abe in Manila
At the same time, the Philippines, the other Southeast Asian state locked in territorial disputes with China, has re-enforced its bid to solicit more external support from Pacific powers, including an increasingly assertive Japan under the new administration of Shinzo Abe.
Having successfully consolidated his party's control in both houses of the Japanese parliament (Diet) after a solid performance in the just concluded upper house elections, Abe headed for Manila, signaling the strategic importance Tokyo will place on Southeast Asia during his term. Given his parliamentary dominance, Abe is in a strong position to redefine Japan's regional role, especially in terms of assistance to weaker US partners such as the Philippines.
Japan is the Philippines' largest trading partner and top source of Official Development Aid, with both sides forging a strategic partnership in September 2011. Japan has since provided among other things, communication systems and 10 multi-role response vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard (PGC). Enhancement of the PGC's capabilities has been a cornerstone of Manila's efforts to improve its minimum deterrence capability in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Although both sides fell short of openly naming China during Abe's visit, they vowed to deepen their maritime cooperation. That pledge followed a visit by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to Manila in June, which culminated in a strong joint statement calling for "further cooperation in terms of the defense of remote islands ... the defense of territorial seas as well as protection of maritime interests".
"Both countries share a strategic interest of making the Asia-Pacific region a free and open region, not by coercion or intimidation, but by the rule of law," Abe said during a press conference in Manila, rhetorically drawing the Philippines into his envisioned "Asian security diamond" alliance of like-minded democratic countries in the Pacific. Critics have referred to the policy as a thinly veiled strategy of containment against China.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino echoed similar positions during the meeting. "Advancing our common advocacy for responsible action from international players" is only possible through "upholding the rule of law in international affairs, and by finding just and peaceful solutions to our territorial disputes and maritime concerns", Aquino said.
Beyond the vaulted rhetoric and engagement proposals, what is increasingly clear is that while the Philippines and Vietnam have cautiously welcomed China's agreement to negotiate a peaceful resolution to territorial disputes through a code of conduct, the two Southeast Asian states will also strive to deepen ties with external powers to fortify their positions in the South China Sea and press for a multilateral resolution to the simmering disputes.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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