As far as China’s designs in the South China Sea are concerned, there is little sign of compromise on the horizon.  Not only has China openly declared its commitment to “active defense” of its interests in adjacent waters, and also dangled the option of imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area, but also it is now only few steps away from concluding its massive construction activities in the Spratly chain of Islands.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is assessing its strategic options and weighing the wisdom of extending its surveillance operations into the 12 nautical miles territorial sea of Chinese-constructed islands in the South China Sea. The Obama administration, confronting stiff legislative opposition at home, is struggling to expedite the conclusion of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. In response, Singapore, a key TPP partner, has openly questioned Washington commitment to the region.

Intent on checking China’s territorial assertiveness, however, the United States’ allies and regional partners have been strengthening their partnership against Beijing. While an energized Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is carving out a new regional security role, the Philippines and Vietnam have progressively pursued a full-fledged strategic partnership to protect their common interests in the South China Sea. The smaller powers are displaying remarkable strategic initiative.

Breaking Barriers

Throughout the Cold War period, Manila and Hanoi were on the opposite sides of the great ideological divide, as Washington and Moscow directed their regional proxies against each other. The two Southeast Asian countries also competed over disputed features in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratly chain of islands, where Vietnam would come control the most number of features and the Philippines managed to establish the first airstrip, on Thitu (Pag-Asa) Island.

After the end of Cold War, the Philippines, specifically under the Ramos administration (1992-1998), welcomed the admission of Vietnam into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Adhering to the principle of “constructive engagement”, Filipino policymakers believed that Vietnam’s integration into the regional order would facilitate its transformation into a force for stability and peace in East Asia.

China’s coercive occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994 also underlined the importance of developing strong ties with fellow claimant states in the ASEAN. Together with Vietnam, the Philippines pushed for regional unity amid Chinese territorial opportunism, culminating in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In the following years, the Philippines and Vietnam negotiated a trilateral Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement with China, hoping to collectively tame China’s ambitions under a joint development scheme.

By 2010, Vietnam and the Philippines, using their leadership roles in the ASEAN and ASEAN-U.S. Leaders Meeting, jointly pushed for more robust American intervention against China, which stepped up its paramilitary patrols and formally declared its notorious Nine-Dashed Line claims across the South China Sea. In response, the Obama administration explicitly identified freedom of navigation in international waters as a “national interest” priority.

With much of the ASEAN reluctant to stand up to China, the Philippines and Vietnam emerged as the most hawkish and vocal critics of Beijing in regional fora. Recognizing ASEAN’s internal divisions and bureaucratic lethargy in pushing for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, the two countries pushed for ASEAN minilateralism, hoping to gather the support of fellow Southeast claimant states, namely Malaysia and Brunei, against China.

Full-fledged Partnership

While Brunei, eager to avoid conflict with bigger neighbors, has effectively abandoned its claims in the South China Sea, Malaysia has been extremely cautious (if not coy) vis-à-vis its territorial disputes with China, refusing to antagonize its key trading partner. Left with limited support from fellow ASEAN countries, Hanoi and Manila have reached out to sympathetic external powers, particularly the United States and Japan, as well as each other.

They have both welcomed greater American military footprint in Asia, while embracing Japan as a potential counterbalance to China. Both Obama and Abe administrations have stepped up their assistance to Hanoi and Manila, particularly in terms of improving their domain awareness and minimum deterrence capability. Recently, Japan has considered the potential export of P-3C anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and radar technology to the Philippines, which, in return, is considering granting Japanese troops access to its military bases close to the South China Sea.

The Obama administration, however, is yet to provide an explicit guarantee of military support in an event of conflict between its Filipino ally and China over disputed features in the South China Sea. The Abe administration, meanwhile, will have to overcome considerable domestic and regional opposition if it is to successfully recast Japan’s pacifist restrictions on overseas military operations and, under the principle of “collective self-defense” expand the Japanese Self Defense Forces’ perimeter of operation.

As the two frontline states, Vietnam and the Philippines have drafted a “Joint Statement on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership between the Republic of the Philippines and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” According to some diplomatic sources, the agreement will be signed next year alongside a similar agreement with another ASEAN country in order to downplay perceptions of an outright Philippine-Vietnam alliance against China. Under the proposed agreement, the two countries are expected to engage in institutionalized high-level bilateral dialogue; coordinate their diplomatic language and maneuver in regional and international fora; and regularly conduct joint naval, coast guard exercises, and scientific research in the South China Sea.

The two countries have also regularly exchanged views on the utility of international legal arbitration to bring China to the negotiating table. During his mid-2014 visit to Manila, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung openly sought Manila’s legal advice on a potential lawsuit against Beijing, under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. Given Vietnam’s geographical proximity to and economic dependence on China, not to mention the country’s strong party-to-party ties, it has had to tread more cautiously than the Philippines, which enjoys a treaty alliance with Washington. Nevertheless, what’s clear is that despite their age-old rivalry in the Spratlys, Manila and Hanoi have been bound by a common threat in China.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.