Thomas Daniel was quoted in Japan Times, 30 January 2024

By Gabriel Dominguez

Frustrated with the slow progress in reaching a regional maritime code-of-conduct with China, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is turning to neighboring South China Sea claimant states to boost regional security cooperation and potentially forge a united front against Beijing at a time of growing friction in contested waters.

A first step in this direction came Tuesday as the Philippines signed two memoranda of understanding (MoUs) on security with Vietnam that will not only deepen coastguard cooperation but also help prevent untoward incidents in the South China Sea, where both countries have overlapping claims.

Signed during the final day of Marcos’ two-day state visit to Hanoi, the deals aim to “enhance coordination on maritime issues bilaterally, within the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and with other dialogue partners,” said the Philippine presidential office, noting that both sides would increase efforts to “promote trust” through dialogue and cooperative activities.

At the same time, Manila and Hanoi agreed to establish a hotline between their respective coastguards and form a joint coast guard committee to discuss common issues and interests.

But while important steps on policy coordination, the deals fall short of the “informal” bilateral code-of-conduct agreement Marcos has been proposing, experts say, arguing that there is currently little appetite by other claimant states to risk angering China and derailing talks on a wider maritime security deal with Beijing.

Before meeting Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong, Marcos described Hanoi as Manila’s “sole strategic partner” in Southeast Asia, stressing that maritime cooperation was the “cornerstone” of their relationship.

In turn, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh was quoted by Reuters as calling for greater unity and closer cooperation, arguing that the world and regional situation “are evolving in a rapid and complicated manner.”

The visit also saw the two sides sign a flurry of cultural exchange, trade and investments agreements, including a deal on rice trade to help Manila address supply concerns in times of crisis.

Marcos also welcomed interest by Vingroup, Vietnam’s largest conglomerate, in investing in the Philippines, particularly in electric vehicle battery production.

The bilateral security MoUs come at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea as Marcos has taken a much tougher stance than his predecessor on his country’s territorial disputes with Beijing.

From laser pointers blinding Philippine sailors to collisions at sea near key military outposts, tensions have been rapidly surging in these strategically and economically important waters.

Against this backdrop, Marcos is attempting to get other Southeast Asian nations involved in Manila’s fight against China. To achieve this, however, he is first aiming to lower tensions with those neighboring countries that have overlapping claims.

Experts such as Hanh Nguyen, from the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies, view the recently signed security MoUs with Hanoi as a demonstration that South China Sea claimant states can at least temporarily put aside their differences to cooperate on maritime security.

This means that the MoUs will help both sides better understand each other’s intentions and thus help prevent maritime incidents, especially involving fishermen operating in overlapping areas, Nguyen said.

Peng Nian, director of the Hong Kong-based Research Center for Asian Studies, has a similar view, noting that the main purpose of the MoUs is to manage the countries’ fishing activities amid tensions over Vietnamese fishing boats entering waters claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone.

The move comes after Marcos revealed in November that Manila had approached Vietnam to craft a separate code of conduct and was hoping to extend similar talks to other neighboring states such as Malaysia.

As the main reason for this, Marcos cited the slow pace of code-of-conduct negotiations between China and ASEAN, which have already taken more than 20 years.

Marcos’ proposal, which essentially circumvents ASEAN’s unanimity rule, is widely seen as part of his tougher stance on China, with the Philippine leader vowing not to cede “an inch” of territory to Beijing.

As such, Marcos has not only been bolstering his country’s defense capabilities but also expanding Manila’s security partnerships with the United States, Japan, Australia, and now Vietnam.

Experts say that Manila’s decision to reach out to Hanoi was no coincidence.

“The Philippines and Vietnam are the most predisposed to collaboration as there’s less territorial overlap in their claims and, more importantly, both have borne the brunt of Chinese aggression,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the U.S. National War College.

This is something Japan has also recognized, singling out both countries for maritime law enforcement and coastguard cooperation. Moreover, Hanoi and Manila will be among the first beneficiaries of Japan’s recently launched military aid program, which also includes reinforcing these countries’ naval capabilities.

That said, experts warn against overestimating the significance of the security MoUs, particularly with regard to their potential impact on territorial disputes with China, which itself has a similar coastguard agreement in place with Vietnam.

Several analysts were also doubtful that Marcos’ attempt to bypass ASEAN and craft a separate code of conduct between Southeast Asian claimant states could ultimately serve as the basis for a united front against Beijing.

“Marcos’ proposal for a bilateral or multilateral code-of-conduct with just the ASEAN claimant states was greeted with relative official silence, which tells you all you need to know on its prospects with Malaysia, Brunei and Malaysia,” said Thomas Daniel, senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.

The reasons for this are likely to be both externally and internally driven. On the former, Daniel said, China has repeatedly warned that any form of “ganging up” by the Southeast Asian claimants would be seen as a hostile move by Beijing and treated as such.

This is important as many ASEAN countries would not want to sour economic relations with China and would prefer to continue balancing relations with both Beijing and Washington without formally taking sides.

On the latter, the fundamental differences between ASEAN claimants are no less significant, said Daniel, adding that the “lack of trust between them continues to impede their ability to find common ground and greater negotiating cohesion.”

Peng has a similar view, arguing that the latest security MoUs “don’t mean that Vietnam stands with the Philippines on the South China Sea disputes” or shows support for Marcos’s policy on territorial disputes.

These steps are rather “elements of Vietnam’s balancing act in the South China Sea” aimed at expanding maritime cooperation with all partners, including claimant states, he said.

Indeed, analysts view this as part of Hanoi’s “bamboo diplomacy” designed to maintain national sovereignty while remaining flexible in its international partnerships.

However, this doesn’t mean that Marcos’ diplomatic push won’t have an effect, with some arguing that it could help sort out lingering issues between other claimant states and set the stage for a more effective code of conduct among all ASEAN members down the line.

This article first published in Japan Times, 30 January 2024

- Advertisement -