Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD
This year marks the 7th year of the Philippines-Vietnam strategic partnership established through the Joint Statement signed on 17 November 2015. The two Southeast Asian countries pursued the said partnership amidst intensified security tensions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) arising primarily from China’s massive reclamation activities in the area preceded by the filing in 2013 of the international arbitration case of the Philippines against China in the aftermath of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff.
The Joint Statement urges both parties to pursue cooperation in various fields for mutual benefits and to handle their differences on the South China Sea (SCS) in order to avoid armed conflicts.
Vietnam, however, continues to conduct infrastructure developments and facilities upgrades in its occupied features in the WPS within the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) of the Spratly Islands.
SCS, WPS, KIG, The Spratly Islands: What’s in a Name?
For better clarity, there is a need to understand first the terms SCS, the Spratly Islands, the WPS, and the KIG.
It is wrong to use WPS to describe the whole of the SCS. The WPS only represents around 30% of all the waters of the SCS. It is also wrong to use the waters of the KIG to describe the whole of WPS. Waters around the KIG just represent a portion of the three bodies of waters comprising the WPS. It is also not accurate to use the KIG to describe the Spratly Islands. The KIG only represents half of the geographic features of the Spratly Islands.
To further explain, the SCS is a body of waters composed of at least 250 geographic features (in the form of islets, reefs, cays, shoals, and rocks) scattered around five major locations: the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal. Many regard the Natuna Islands of Indonesia as strictly not part of the SCS. But the Natuna Islands are included in maritime and territorial disputes because China and Vietnam claim part of the adjacent waters in the SCS.
The most controversial among these locations are the Spratly Islands composed of more than 100 geographic features being claimed in whole and in parts by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. It is in the Spratly Islands where the KIG is located. Only 54 out of more than 100 geographic features of the Spratly Islands belong to the KIG.
Waters around the KIG, the Scarborough Shoal and the Luzon Straits comprise the WPS. Not all waters of the WPS belong to the SCS. Only waters around the KIG and the Scarborough Shoal are considered part of the SCS. The Luzon Strait, which is part of the WPS, is not strictly part of the SCS. But the Luzon Strait geographically connects the Philippine Sea to SCS that is considered part of the West Pacific Ocean.
Vietnam’s Activities in the WPS
The Philippine Department of National Defense disclosed in May 2022 that Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen, along with their coast guards, routinely conducted activities in the WPS, particularly around the Spratly Islands where the KIG is situated. However, they “could not be driven out by the Philippine government out of fear of war.”[i] The Philippine defense establishment even lamented, “The Chinese, who have built islands in the West Philippine Sea, are still there, along with the Vietnamese. Three of us are claiming other parts of the WPS.”[ii]
Like China, therefore, Vietnam is also a serious security concern for the Philippines in the WPS.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) based in Washington DC already warned that since 2017, Vietnam was quietly upgrading its facilities in the WPS. The AMTI revealed, “Vietnam continues to quietly upgrade its facilities in the Spratly Islands, though apparently without facing the same reaction from China’s maritime militia forces as the Philippines recently has. Vietnam occupies 49 outposts spread across 27 features in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands.[iii] The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) based in Beijing also discovered that since 2021, Vietnam maintained their “illegal presence” and “illegal fishing activities” around and even beyond its occupied areas in the SCS despite the COVID-19 pandemic.[iv]
The Philippines’ National Task Force (NTF) on the WPS also admits that Vietnam continues to occupy and control 21 geographic features inside the KIG. China and Malaysia occupy 7 and 5 features, respectively. Taiwan occupies only one feature while the Philippines occupies only 9 out of the 54 features of its territories in the KIG. Brunei does not occupy feature in the KIG, but it claims two features of the Spratly Islands.
In terms of occupied features, Vietnam is therefore the Philippines’ most aggressive rival having occupied almost half of Philippine territories in the KIG. Presidential Decree 1596 declares the 54 features within the KIG as subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines and part of the continental margin of the Philippine archipelago. The Philippine government also declares the KIG as a municipality within the province of Palawan.
As long as Hanoi illegally occupies 21 out of 54 features of the KIG, Vietnam remains as rival of the Philippines in the WPS. It is problematic for Vietnam to become a real strategic partner of the Philippines under this situation, unless a mutually accepted friendly arrangement is successfully made through peaceful negotiations.
The Philippines Negotiating with Vietnam?
Pursuing negotiations with Vietnam, however, will be an enormous challenge for the Philippines because Hanoi claims the entirety of the Spratly Islands named Truong Sa in Vietnamese. Vietnam declares its undisputable sovereignty of the Spratly Islands including the KIG based on its legal and historical evidences. To defend its sovereignty in the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has upgraded its naval capabilities by acquiring to date six attack submarines, four guided missile frigates, seven anti-submarine corvettes, at least 21 fast attack crafts, 17 amphibious warfare ships, 12 patrol vessels, and five torpedo boats, among others.
Hence, the Philippines will find it difficult to negotiate with Vietnam, which at present has a greater military leverage. Furthermore, Vietnam has overtaken the Philippines economically in 2021 by modernizing its industries, strengthening its agricultural sector and by enticing foreign capital to invest in infrastructures, transportations, telecommunications, and energy sectors. The Philippine government has to face these inconvenient realities if it decides to negotiate with Vietnam on the KIG issues.
Are Territories Negotiable?
Sadly, it is very unlikely to resolve territorial disputes in the SCS in the immediate or near future because of sovereignty issues that parties find hard to negotiate. The Philippine government even underscores not to surrender even a square inch of Philippine territories in the WPS. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not also provide provisions on settling sovereignty disputes. UNCLOS only provides provisions on resolving maritime jurisdictional conflicts.
Thus, the Philippines can only negotiate with Vietnam on maritime jurisdictional conflicts in the KIG in accordance with UNCLOS. But on the issue of geographic features occupied by Vietnam in the KIG, the two countries need to find a mutually acceptable arrangement to resolve their current conflicts.
Lessons from Vietnam-Indonesia Negotiations
Vietnam’s ongoing negotiations with Indonesia can provide the Philippines some lessons. In 2003, Vietnam and Indonesia signed an agreement on their continental shelf boundaries. But they still have overlapping claims of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the waters of Northern Natuna where both parties have occasional clashes over fishery and maritime patrol activities. Since 2010, Vietnam and Indonesia have conducted at least 12 rounds of negotiations on EEZ delimitation. On the basis of these talks, so far, Indonesia reportedly has given Vietnam some concessions by offering 60% of Jakarta’s waters to Hanoi in Northern Natuna.
Why is Indonesia yielding generously to Vietnam?
That begs the question that the Philippine government needs to find out. But by paying closer attention to Vietnam-Indonesia negotiations on EEZ delimitations, the Philippines can have a clue on how to deal with Vietnam in the KIG, particularly on the Pugad Island or the South West Cay now fully occupied by Vietnam.
The Pugad Island Experience
As part of the KIG, Philippine military used to occupy Pugad Island in 1968 along with a nearby feature called Parola Island or Northwest Cay. But in 1975, Vietnam forcibly occupied Pugad Island by preventing Philippine military troops to maintain their presence there. This woeful incident left an indelible ink of ill feelings between the Philippines and Vietnam that both countries need to overcome. Some Filipino military officials even describe Vietnam as the first “island grabber” of Philippine territories in the KIG. Pugad Island is currently one of the most developed features in the KIG now fully occupied and controlled by Vietnam.
Under this situation, can the Philippines and Vietnam really be strategic partners or will remain strategic rivals in the WPS?
Partners or Rivals?
The Philippines and Vietnam can become strategic partners if they can agree to settle their territorial conflicts and maritime jurisdictional disputes through peaceful means. Pending agreement by both parties, UNCLOS encourages them to exert their best efforts to enter into “provisional arrangements of practical nature” like marine environmental research, marine environmental protection, fishery management cooperation, maritime law enforcement coordination, and other functional areas already identified in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS entered into by China and members of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The ongoing ASEAN-China negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the SCS can also facilitate cooperation and partnership arrangements among parties.
However, UNCLOS, the DOC and the COC only cover maritime jurisdictional issues. They cannot cover territorial conflicts and sovereignty disputes.
It is therefore imperative for the Philippines and Vietnam to find a mutually acceptable way to settle their territorial conflicts affecting their respective sovereignty positions in order to overcome their existing rivalry in WPS. They also need to sustain their efforts to pursue functional cooperation in the WPS to really promote strategic partnership in their overall bilateral ties.
[i] Giselle Ombay, “Chinese and Vietnamese fisherfolk and coast guards are still going around the West Philippine Sea, but could not be driven out by the Philippine government out of fear of war,” GMA News Online, 30 May 2022 at https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/topstories/nation/833279/lorenzana-admits-china-vietnam-s-presence-still-evident-in-west-philippine-sea/story/ <accessed on 22 September 2022>.
[iii]Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “Slow and Steady: Vietnam’s Spratlys Upgrade”, 8 April 2019 at https://amti.csis.org/slow-and-steady-vietnams-spratly-upgrades/ <accessed on 22 September 2022>.
[iv] Wang Teng Fei and Song Runxi, “Vietnam Illegal Fishing and Maritime Conflicts Continue in 2021”, 31 December 2021 at http://www.scspi.org/en/dtfx/vietnamese-illegal-fishing-and-maritime-conflicts-continue-2021 <accessed on 22 September 2022>.