In a January Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines event, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the security environment in the country, both internally and externally, has not changed in the past 10 years.
Although bilateral relations with China have improved since President Rodrigo Duterte became president in July 2016, the retired army general said the competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea remain to be the Philippines’ biggest security challenge.
The situation could be much worse because the Philippines could be dragged into the escalating tension between the United States and China as the US Navy stepped up its “freedom of navigation operations” in the strategic waterway and would likely expand to the Taiwan Straits and the Senkaku islands in the north.
“We will not surrender any part of our territory,” Lorenzana said, adding that the July 2016 ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in favor of Manila is “valid and legitimate.”
Last March 10, the defense secretary visited Hanoi to return a favor made by his Vietnamese counterpart, General Ngo Xuan Lich, who was in Manila in October 2017 during the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting at Clark Field.
It took more than a year for Lorenzana to reciprocate the gesture of Vietnam’s top defense official and observers wondered where the strategic partnership relations between Manila and Hanoi were headed Philippines’ foreign policy towards China turned 180 degrees in 2016.
Highs and lows
Manila and Hanoi have had love-hate relations over the past 50 years.
They were close allies in the 1960s until mid-1970s during the Vietnam War, with the Philippines sending several batches of soldiers to help the United States stop communist advances in Indo-China. The U.S. was humiliated in that war.
Relations between Manila and Hanoi turned upside down when the North won and reunited the two Vietnams together. But, before the communists won, Manila could not forget the treachery of South Vietnam when it seized control of Southwest Cay, locally known in the Philippines as Pugad island in the Spratly.
Pugad was originally held by the Vietnamese, but Filipino soldiers took control of the island in 1968 when former president Ferdinand Marcos began expansion in the South China Sea, building an airstrip on Thitu island, or Pagasa Island.
Before Saigon fell, there were stories that the Vietnamese sent prostitutes as gifts to the commander of Philippine troops celebrating his birthday on nearby Northeast Cay, or Parola island. The soldiers on Southwest Cay crossed to the next island to join the party.
After the merrymaking, the Filipino soldiers were surprised to see the Vietnamese flag flying on Southwest Cay, the second biggest feature occupied by Vietnam to this day.
Forty years later, the two Southeast Asian countries have become strategic partners as both face a larger threat from China, which started building manmade islands in the Spratly and putting up military structures, including secured ports, airstrips and missile platforms.
Under the former administration of president Benigno Aquino III, relations with Vietnam strengthened with the signing of a defense cooperation agreement in October 2010, which put up a mechanism on exchange of visits, training, information sharing, and maritime law enforcement.
Vietnam’s most powerful warships, two missile-guided frigates, made port calls in Manila and a Philippine Navy logistics vessel visited Vietnam soon after.
But the most visible and significant cooperation between the two countries is on the treatment of fishermen caught within their respective territorial waters.
Twice, President Rodrigo Duterte personally sent off Vietnamese fishermen caught by the Philippine Navy poaching in the country’s territorial waters, and Vietnamese troops reciprocated the kindness by helping distressed Filipino fishermen found adrift near Vietnam’s occupied islands in the Spratly. This month, Vietnamese fishermen rescued two Filipinos from the high seas.
Vietnamese soldiers deployed in the Spratly have been playing friendly soccer, volleyball and tug-o-war games with Filipino Marines and soldiers since 2014, a symbolic gesture of how once-suspicious neighbors have been tearing down walls of distrust to build cooperation.
Lorenzana’s quiet visit to Hanoi early this month added to the warming of ties of both countries. But more needs to be done.
Guarding the seas
The two countries’ navies should broaden and deepen cooperation by expanding staff-to-staff dialogue through more frequent interactions among troops in the disputed territories, increase in ship visit exchanges, and the establishment of a direct navy-to-navy hotline.
Communications between the two navies are still coursed through the embassies through defense and armed forces attaches (DAFAs). It would easier if the navy chiefs of the two countries have a direct access to each other so they could easily resolve issues and avoid any accidents or problems in the South China Sea.
As China expands its anti-access/area denial (A2AD) strategy in the South China Sea to push away the United States and other regional powers, like Australia and Japan, it has also affected fishermen in the region, driving away Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Philippine fishermen outside their traditional, rich fishing grounds.
Sooner or later, this could pose a big problem to Filipino fishermen who will be competing with larger boats from other Asian countries. Fishermen in Bataan, Zambales and Pangasinan have started complaining of low catch and the destruction of their “payao” by Vietnamese fishermen within 20 to 30 miles from the shorelines in the South China Sea.
Better security relations with Vietnam could address this potential diplomatic and economic problem, underlining the need for the hotline not only for maritime law enforcement but for the navy as well. – Rappler.com
A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters' reporting on the Philippines' war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.