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Vietnam and the Philippines Working on Strategic Partnership in South China Sea

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Vietnam and the Philippines are reportedly in talks to develop a strategic partnership focused on the South China Sea, aiming to avoid maritime disputes and present a united front against China. Both countries are asserting their claims in the region, which makes them vulnerable to China’s alleged wedge strategy or actions aligned with Beijing.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stated in August that negotiations had begun with Vietnam for a maritime agreement that would help the two ASEAN nations address common challenges in the South China Sea. Marcos emphasized that such an agreement would bring stability to the current issues in the region, likely referring to incidents like the Chinese coast guard vessel firing a water cannon at a Philippine supply boat.

In May, Marcos had already communicated to Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh the importance of reaching an agreement to prevent conflicts in contested waters. There have been instances where the Philippine Coast Guard has arrested and pursued Vietnamese vessels engaged in illegal fishing around the disputed Spratly Islands. In 2017, a deadly clash occurred when a Filipino Coast Guard ship fired at a Vietnamese fishing boat. Establishing rules of engagement and maritime law enforcement through a maritime agreement is crucial for both claimants to effectively manage their disputes and incidents.

The bilateral negotiations between the Philippines and Vietnam align with their growing strategic partnership focused on the South China Sea and their shared concerns over China’s grey-zone tactics. During the 10th meeting of the Philippines-Vietnam Joint Permanent Working Group on Maritime and Ocean Concerns in May, both sides expressed their serious concerns over unilateral activities that undermine peace and stability in the region, which indirectly pointed to China’s conduct. In early August, when Philippine Secretary for Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo visited Vietnam, the two countries agreed to enhance information sharing and coordination to address maritime challenges and combat illegal fishing.

However, challenges lie ahead for this developing partnership. Responding to China’s assertiveness in the region, both the Philippines and Vietnam appear to be reinforcing their existing claims. However, these efforts may inadvertently lead to diplomatic tensions and nationalist sentiments.

In May 2023, Vietnam protested against the Philippines for violating its sovereign rights by placing navigational buoys in five areas in the Spratlys. Conversely, in the Philippines, nationalist voices, as well as those friendly towards Beijing, have increasingly portrayed Vietnam’s reclamation and militarization efforts as a significant threat.

China or parties connected to China could exploit maritime disputes and tensions between the Philippines and Vietnam, driving a wedge between the two countries. An example of a potential wedge strategy occurred in late July when two articles discussing Vietnam’s militarization in the South China Sea were published in the generally pro-China Manila Times. Concerns were raised about the credibility of leaked documents mentioned in the articles, which suggested that Vietnam had hired a private company to fortify contested features in the Spratly Islands. Experts scrutinized the leaked documents and doubted their authenticity due to inconsistent use of Vietnamese official formats and language.

In addition, suspicious individuals contacted Philippine maritime security experts urging them to write about Vietnam’s alleged militarization. This led the experts to suspect that it was an attempt by China to drive a wedge between the Philippines and Vietnam. These events suggest that a campaign to influence public opinion was deployed in July to create discord between the two countries.

Following the publication of the Manila Times articles, a group of Filipinos tore up a Vietnamese national flag in front of the Vietnamese embassy in Manila, protesting against the alleged militarization. Vietnam requested that the Philippines take strict action and prevent such incidents from recurring, as they could affect the development of the strategic partnership.

It is likely that China or China-sponsored groups are behind the attempt to undermine the growing strategic partnership between Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Influencing international public opinion aligns with China’s official approach of using psychological, legal, and opinion warfare against other claimants in the region. By keeping ASEAN countries divided on the South China Sea, China aims to prevent the formation of a united front against Beijing.

In light of this, Vietnam and the Philippines must remain vigilant and evaluate any potential wedge strategies employed against them. As strategic partners, the two countries should devise coordinated responses to counter these tactics and protect their bilateral ties from significant damage.

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