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MANILA, Philippines – For his first bilateral visit for 2024, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. put security and safety issues in the South China Sea at the forefront as he met with leaders from Vietnam, which also has claims in the critical waterway.
In speeches delivered during meetings with Vietnamese President Võ Văn Thưởng and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the Philippine president repeatedly called attention to agreements between the two countries covering their coast guards and “cooperation and coordination” in the South China Sea, as well as a future joint submission before the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
Marcos was in Hanoi from January 29 to 31 for a state visit.
Why do these agreements and commitments matter?
Both the Philippines and Vietnam are claimant states in the South China Sea – a crucial waterway that superpower China claims practically in its entirety. China’s 9-dash line, which evolved into the 10-dash line, includes large swaths of the sea claimed by several other states including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and the independently-governed Taiwan.
The line encompasses the West Philippine Sea, which includes parts of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The 2016 Arbitral Ruling invalidated the 9-dash line, but China has refused to acknowledge its validity.
The two Southeast Asian neighbors face the same dilemma as other nations in the region and beyond: China’s aggressiveness in asserting its claims in the South China Sea.
“On regional and international issues, the South China Sea remains to be a point of contention. The Philippines’ position on the South China Sea has been consistent, clear, and firmly anchored in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” said Marcos to both Vietnamese leaders.
The South China Sea is crucial for security and stability not just of the countries that surround it, but of the global economy, too.
For countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, stability and peace means access to the resources of the South China Sea, and their ability to truly exercise their sovereign rights in those waters, ensure their food supply and the livelihoods of small-scale fisherfolk. It also means it need not think about threats to its territory.
An estimated $3 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea yearly.
“It is imperative to the Philippines and the world that the sailings and the air traffic over the South China Sea remain free for the large amount of trade that goes through those areas,” added Marcos.
The Philippines has been a front row witness and victim to China’s aggressive actions.
In 2023 especially, the Philippines, through its “transparency initiative,” put a spotlight on the harassment its ships face during resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal, where a rusty warship serves as a military outpost.
Hanoi, while not showing the same transparency as Manila, has had its share of publicized incidents of conflict with China in the South China Sea. In May 2023, a Chinese research ship and five escort vessels entered Vietnam’s EEZ. Vietnam rebuked China’s actions.
That same month Vietnam also rebuked the Philippines’ decision to place navigational buoys within its EEZ.
Bringing tensions down
Diplomacy and continued dialogue is always essential, especially when tensions on the ground – or at sea, in this case – run high.
Manila has been keen on keeping communication lines with Beijing open. In mid-January 2023, the Philippines and China agreed to better their “maritime communication mechanism in the South China Sea,” during a meeting in Beijing.
Just a month prior, on December 9 and 10, Philippine vessels in Bajo de Masinloc and Ayungin Shoal – features that are well within the Philippines’ EEZ – were targeted by water cannons by the China Coast Guard. Outside of collision and allision incidents, the weekend firing of water cannons would have been the worst instance of rising tensions and danger in those waters.
Marcos brought up the weekend incident in Vietnam, calling it China’s “undertaking of unilateral and illegal actions that violate our sovereignty, our sovereign rights, and jurisdiction, and exacerbate tensions in the South China Sea.”
“We are firm in defending our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction against these Chinese provocations. But at the same time, we are also seeking to address these issues with China and all other partners through peaceful dialogue and consultations as two equal sovereign states,” said Marcos.
But there is a bigger agreement that’s long-overdue: the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea between the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China.
Absent a COC, bilateral agreements, such as the Memorandum on Incident Prevention and Management in the South China Sea signed in Hanoi, matter – if only to make it clear between two countries how their maritime agencies should function in the waterway.
“I hope that through dialogue, we can maintain a peaceful, friendly, and harmonious environment in the South China Sea,” said Marcos of the agreement, the full text of which has yet to be made public.
Marcos had said in a November 2023 forum that the Philippines was seeking separate codes of conduct with other Southeast Asian nations. It’s likely he was referring to bilateral agreements akin to a COC such as the one signed with Vietnam.
“I hope that we can seriously implement this agreement as quickly as we can,” Macos would say of the agreement after calling on Prime Minister Phạm.
Another agreement, this time on cooperation between the Philippine Coast Guard and the Vietnam Coast Guard, also ensures a more peaceful South China Sea. It builds on two existing agreements – one signed in 2010 for search and rescue at sea, and another in 2011 to create a hotline communications mechanism.
Vietnamese ships – small fishing vessels, especially – often sail through or stay in different parts of the West Philippine Sea without any untoward incident. It was Vietnamese fisherfolk, for instance, who came to the rescue of Filipino fisherfolk whose vessel was sunk by a Chinese ship in Recto bank. Philippine authorities have also rescued Vietnamese fisherfolk in need of help at sea.
Marcos also “noted” Vietnam’s “continued interest” in a joint submission on the extended continental shelf before the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
The CLCS helps states figure out the limits of a country’s continental shelf when it goes beyond 200 nautical miles, or the EEZ. According to the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, CLCS also “[provides] scientific and technical advice, if requested by the coastal state.”
“As maritime nations, we share a similar assessment of the current state of our regional environment with other maritime nations of the Asia-Pacific. Our countries have crucial roles to play in shaping the regional security discourse and in upholding the rules-based international order,” said Marcos.
On the sidelines of the state visit, National Security Advisor Eduardo Año met with his Vietnamese counterpart, Minister of Public Security To Lam, according to a February 1 press release from the National Security Council (NSC). It was the first time for the security chiefs of the two countries to meet since 2016, the NSC said.
In a statement, the NSC said Año and Lam “agreed to increasing exchanges at all levels given the continuing evolution of the regional security environment.”
The NSC said that Vietnam brought up the option of “making use of intelligence cooperation
as a platform to share information and conduct mutual consultations over sensitive issues that are hard to convey through official channels,” among other points of discussion.
Vietnam, like the Philippines, has very close trade ties with China.
But unlike Manila, Hanoi also shares a land border with its Chinese neighbor. In late-December, Hanoi agreed to be part of Beijing’s “community of shared future,” although experts, according to the Voice of America, did not see it as a significant upgrade.
Socialist Vietnam has forged closer ties with the West.
Upping trade ties was part of Marcos’ main agenda in flying to Hanoi. The two countries signed an agreement on rice trade, with Marcos eyeing to “expand” bilateral trade, currently at just US$7 billion.
Agreements were also signed on tourism cooperation, as well as cultural cooperation. – Rappler.com