In November 2015, against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam established a strategic partnership. A vocal critic of Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea at the time, Manila pursued a dual approach  by bolstering its defense capabilities and enhancing its military alliance with Washington through the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, while also forging security partnerships not just with Hanoi but also with Tokyo and Canberra.

However, since the inauguration of the current government in June 2016, the Philippines has shifted course in its foreign policy. From what was initially observed as a return to a hedging approach to international affairs, Manila has gravitated toward a closer geopolitical confluence with Beijing and the increasing realization of President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 declaration of a “separation” from Washington. Indeed, in February 2020, Manila announced that it had issued a notice of termination for the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, a military pact crucial to the implementation of the 1951 Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty.

Hence, it came as a surprise that the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued a rare rebuke of Beijing following the April 3, 2020, sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a China Coast Guard vessel. In a “statement of solidarity,” the DFA said in part: “Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it; and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen. We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam.” The DFA underscored that “[t]here is never a good time to indulge in provocations…As we have said the creation of new facts in the water will never give rise to legal right anywhere or anytime.” Interestingly,  just a month before, the DFA, through the Philippine Permanent Mission to the United Nations, asserted Manila’s victory in the Philippines arbitration case against China.

In the 2015 declaration of their strategic partnership, Manila and Hanoi reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes and “to ensure maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the [South China Sea]…in accordance with universally-recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Notwithstanding the mixed foreign policy signals from the Philippines, there appears to be four opportunities by which the two Southeast Asian states can further advance their strategic partnership.

First, the two can cooperate in shaping the agenda of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), particularly in the area of maritime security. As strategic partners, the Philippines and Vietnam committed to enhance security cooperation in ASEAN-led platforms, and Vietnam’s 2020 ASEAN chairmanship provides a major opportunity for defense diplomacy. The ADMM’s agenda is formalized through its three-year work program, which identifies specific areas of cooperation among its members, as well as those included under the ADMM-Plus platform (which includes China, the United States, and ASEAN’s other most important dialogue partners). The last ADMM work program, for 2017-2019, was issued under the Philippines’ 2017 ASEAN chairmanship. The work program for 2020-2022 will be issued under Hanoi’s ASEAN stewardship.

It is interesting to theorize how addressing maritime gray zone coercion challenges could figure in the next ADMM work program. While such actions fall short of armed conflict, gray zone coercion is nonetheless one of the major security concerns in the region. This is particularly true in the South China Sea, where China has been changing the status quo without firing a shot through tactics such as the seizing of Scarborough Shoal, creation of artificial islands, and deployment of maritime militia.

Second, Vietnam and the Philippines can work on strengthening coordination in the implementation of ADMM-initiatives that can contribute to the management of tensions in the South China Sea as well as addressing traditional security concerns. These initiatives include the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure, Guidelines for Maritime Interaction, and the Guidelines for Air Military Encounters, which has annexes including “Observing Existing Aviation Conventions and Rules,” “Safe and Professional Communications,” “Standard Flight Procedures,” and “Encouraging Mutual Trust and Confidence in the Air.”

Third, the two can cooperate by leveraging their current positions in ASEAN with respect to the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations. While Vietnam is this year’s ASEAN chair, the Philippines is the country coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations from 2018 to 2021. Beijing has expressed that it wishes to “finalize the COC” during Manila’s tenure as coordinator. Cognizant of the difficult issues surrounding the negotiations, it remains to be seen whether or not the COC will indeed be finalized during this period. Nevertheless, it is expected that the South China Sea will be a major item on the agenda during Hanoi’s ASEAN chairmanship. As such, the Philippines and Vietnam should work with other ASEAN members to remove questionable provisions in the COC Single Draft Negotiating Text, including Beijing’s proposal that China and ASEAN should “not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”  Should this provision be included in the final COC, China could effectively veto military exercises of ASEAN states with other powers such as the United States.

Fourth, the Philippines and Vietnam have a shared interest in sustaining military cooperation mechanisms and activities, particularly in the South China Sea. Apart from military staff-to-staff talks, the navies of both countries have conducted confidence building measures in the South China Sea pursuant to a 2012 agreement. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, many maritime activities are likely to be suspended this year. Nevertheless, there is a strategic imperative to sustain defense dialogue between the two countries through other means. After all, even amid the COVID-19 outbreak which originated from China, Beijing continues with its assertive behavior in the South China Sea, including the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat and most recently sending the Haiyang Dizhi 8 to conduct a seabed survey in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. In addition, Beijing’s recent decision to create new administrative districts in the South China Sea, as well as a February 2020 incident in which the Chinese navy ship pointed a radar gun at a Philippine navy vessel, prompted a diplomatic protest from Manila.

Overall, the Philippines-Vietnam strategic partnership has the potential to complement efforts to promote regional peace and stability over the long-term because of a clear convergence of their national interests. With a rising China looming large on the region’s geopolitical horizon, their overlapping South China Sea claims have effectively been placed on the backburner. It is crucial for small states to take advantage of opportunities that may come their way. After all, for small states like the Philippines and Vietnam, international cooperation is critical for their security.

About Mico Galang

Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). His research interests include the international relations of the Asia Pacific, territorial and maritime disputes, and Philippine foreign and security policies. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.