Vietnam and the Philippines have upgraded their relationship to a “strategic partnership” – involving closer military cooperation – in a clear gesture of defiance to China.
Meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Manila, President Truong Tan Sang and President Benigno Aquino signed a joint statement to boost their relations on defence, maritime cooperation and trade.
Observers say that China’s assertiveness in the disputed waters of the South and East China Seas is increasingly driving its neighbours into informal alliances as they seek to defend their interests.
The agreement between Manila and Hanoi comes despite the recent visit to Vietnam by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who attempted to ease tensions over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Vietnamese democracy activists and others suspect the government of selling out to China, and point to its acceptance of loans and aid packages during the visit by President Xi.
A member of the National Assembly, Truong Trong Nghia, on Tuesday directly challenged the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, saying dependence on Chinese aid weakened Vietnam’s negotiating position.
Mr Dung said Vietnam wanted improved relations with China but was determined to defend its independence, national sovereignty and strategic interests.
President Sang told his Philippine counterpart said Vietnam wanted peace and stability in a region where China has been building artificial islands with military capabilities on reefs and shoals.
“We shared our concerns over the recent developments in the East Sea, or the South China Sea, affecting trust, peace, security and stability in the region,” he said, in a clear reference to China’s recent construction work and assertion of claims to sovereignty.
President Aquino welcomed the move for enhanced cooperation between the two militaries.
“As seafaring peoples, we look to initiatives that will enhance our capacities to better respond to challenges and situations in our common seas,” he said.
There are plans for exchanges between coastguards and for Vietnamese naval vessels to visit Philippine ports.
Analysts say that the weak and underfunded Vietnamese and Philippine navies and coastguards are no match for China’s growing naval muscle.
However, the agreement shows political intent and draws Vietnam closer to the United States, which remains the dominant naval power in the western Pacific, and its allies.
Vietnam has already extended an invitation to the other key US ally in the region, Japan, to send naval ships to visit the strategic deep water port at Cam Ranh Bay.
The Philippines is also mounting a legal challenge to China’s claims in the South China Sea, and Vietnam is reported to be thinking of joining the action, which is due to be heard at The Hague.
Vietnam and The Philippines have overlapping claims in the Spratly Islands, but both countries are focused on resisting China’s attempts at expansion.
Full details of the agreement have not been released although Philippine officials said they include cooperation on political, economic, defence, maritime, judicial and law enforcement.
Both sides stressed the importance of enforcing the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as the key to resolving the dispute with China.