By Saka Puluan
The South China Sea is a multiparty dispute. No infringement from whichever party is too big or too small to go uncontested. One cannot be noisy about one and eerily silent on the other lest such indifference or passiveness be construed as acquiescence. No rival claimant should be privileged over another. Consistency is vital in asserting and defending one’s position in a long-running flashpoint. A spade is a spade regardless of who draws it.
However, this does not seem to be the case for the Philippines. For some disingenuous reason, Manila is muting its differences with Hanoi to form a united front against Beijing in the intractable maritime row. Being both ASEAN members and lesser claimants against a bigger and more powerful rival, the logic of solidarity is appealing and may make some sense. China’s moves in the hotspot get much all-around coverage as the strategic waterway becomes one arena for US-China great power game and as Beijing tries to enforce its spurious claims and disrupt the marine economic activities of its smaller neighbors.
But Vietnam’s actions should not be excised, and it is no less guilty of violating Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction. In fact, it is the only disputant to have physically dislodged Manila from a feature it once occupied – Pugad Island (Southwest Cay) in 1975. The move was unexpected as then South Vietnam was an ally and was in the thick of the fight for its own survival. Manila neither recovered Pugad by force nor leveraged its alliance with the US to have it returned to its fold through negotiations. That – not the 1995 Panganiban (Mischief) Reef incident – was the first fait accompli against Philippine interests in the South China Sea. Moving on is fine, but not learning from history is unacceptable. That episode attests to the adage that there are no permanent friends, just permanent interests.
Noisy against China, mute on Vietnam
In the decades-old struggle for control over the reefs, shoals, and waters of the South China Sea, disputants supported their fishing fleets and auctioned offshore blocks for energy investors. Claimants named and mapped land and even underwater features, built facilities and stationed troops in their outposts, created administrative units to govern their claims, and launched military drills. All engaged in routine patrols and resupply sorties to their possessions. However, Manila seems to be adopting a tiered approach as if drawing an artificial dichotomy between one disputant and another.
While Manila raises hell over Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea, Vietnamese activities in its western exclusive economic zone (EEZ) hardly elicit any public mention. No question that China has the most extensive claims, which a 2016 arbitration ruling already invalidated. But Vietnam, in fact, occupied the most number of features in the Spratlys. Based on the Center for Strategic and International Studies-Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative’s reckoning, Vietnam built structures on 21 rocks and reefs in the Spratlys, along with 14 isolated platforms on six submerged banks southeast of Hanoi. This is greater than the combined number of administered features by the Philippines, China, and Malaysia. And while Beijing’s Great Wall of Sand grabbed international infamy, Hanoi’s own significant reclamation works hardly get reported.
While heavy spotlight was put on Chinese fishing and maritime militia activities in the semi-enclosed sea, Vietnam apparently gets a free pass. In 2018, former Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana bared that Vietnamese – not Chinese – fishers are the most frequent poachers in Philippine waters. However, while many are livid about Chinese fishers operating in the West Philippine Sea, Vietnamese fishers are given kid’s gloves treatment. Former President Rodrigo Duterte personally witnessed the send-off of two batches of Vietnamese fishers caught in waters off Santa Catalina, Ilocos Sur, in 2016 and off Cape Bolinao, Pangasinan, in 2017. They were not even caught in the country’s vast EEZ, but right in the country’s coastal waters off western Luzon! Had and will Manila done the same were the fishers caught red-handed were Chinese? Will the local media and public reacted the same?
In 2019, Manila and Hanoi agreed to avoid detaining fishers from either side caught entering their claimed waters. Much depleted fishing stocks in waters closer to mainland Asia have forced many Chinese and Vietnamese fishers to venture farther into the western edges of the South China Sea, competing with less efficient and artisanal Filipino fishers for increasingly dwindling catches. No one raised an issue about this “agreement.” No exposé. No Senate inquiry. No constitutional challenge. But imagine the uproar if it was with China.
Spotlight on China gives a free hand to Vietnam
The Philippines was and is privy to Vietnam’s construction and militarization of its occupied features in the West Philippine Sea for a long time. Yet, it remained mum and made no effort to rollback Hanoi’s disturbing actions. Manila resorted to bland words in its diplomatic notes to its fellow Southeast Asian claimant. Only 6 diplomatic protests were filed against Vietnam compared 97 against China since the start of the Marcos government. Such protests hardly gets printed in Philippine dailies so the public was never informed. There has been no report of Hanoi’s ambassador in Manila being summoned to the Department of Foreign Affairs for an explanation about Vietnamese activities in Philippine’s EEZ.
The Philippines putting China on the spot makes Vietnam the biggest winner, freeing its hand to do more to consolidate its position in the flashpoint. While some in Manila contemplate further legal action or bringing the maritime tiff before the United Nations, Vietnam is doubling down on where it really matters – on the ground. Hanoi has extensive oil and gas and fishing activities in the South China Sea and is busy expanding its landholdings. In contrast, Manila has only the aging Malampaya, which will run dry soon, and only 7% of its fisheries output is obtained from the West Philippine Sea.
Vietnam knows that more concessions can be obtained from threatening to use the legal card than actually exercising it. The Philippines has been the unspoken test case on which basis other littorals (and even the rest of Southeast Asia, for that matter) calibrate their China policy. To be fair, it is not that Vietnam is duplicitous. It just has managed expectations and is doing what needs to be done to advance its interests.
Being firm and consistent raises the Philippines’ maritime case. Anything less is illusory and self-defeating. Manila should contest Vietnam’s actions as it does China’s and others.