The Philippines shall be hosting the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit meeting on 18-19 November 2015 at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC). Around 47 meetings have already been held prior to the final event. The APEC meeting shall be attended by 21 leaders from different countries including the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Canada and Russia. The APEC grouping comprising of 21 economies represent around 39 per cent of the world’s population, 57 per cent of global production of world trade and 47 per cent of international trade.
Since January 2015, the APEC Summit has started organising events and implementing in different host countries. For example in January 2015, several events were conducted in Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong. In February, the APEC held seven meetings, six of which were hosted by the Philippines while the other one in Beijing, China.
In the Summit, the leaders are likely to discuss the larger idea of creating a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which was also in the agenda of the previous 2014 summit meeting in Beijing where the leaders had agreed to a ‘collective strategic study’. That concept however is yet to be defined though all 21 APEC economies elected to be members of the taskforce for the study. The Philippines is keen to develop its trade industry, and hopes the APEC 2015 Summit shall open opportunities for the country including the Cebu Action Plan, which mainly targets financial sustainability. It also hopes to leverage the Boracay Action Agenda that could help promote micro, small and medium enterprises in the global market.
These are economic considerations from the perspective of the Philippines. After the APEC Economic Leader’s Meeting, two more events are scheduled in November itself, which will be hosted by the Philippines and Jeju, Korea. The last event this year will be held in Hawaii from 14 to 18 December.
Apart from economic, South China Sea issue is likely to dominate at APEC Summit followed by unilateral and assertive Chinese actions. China has said that APEC is not the appropriate place to discuss the South China Sea issue, after US officials categorically said that the issue shall be discussed. The South China Sea issue is so important for the nations in the region from strategic, security, and economic perspectives that no single nation can have control over this international water. The issue becomes larger from the perspective of securing international maritime trade as a bulk of global trade is sea-borne and securing sea trade for smooth maritime commerce in an economically interdependent world is hugely important. South China Sea is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and fishery resources.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the APEC Summit meeting in Manila amid tensions between China and the Philippines over the disputed South China Sea. Though President Xi delivered a lecture on “Forging a Strong Partnership to Enhance Prosperity of Asia” at the National University of Singapore on 7 November 2015, China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. A summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in early November, attended by both the US and China, failed to produce a final statement because the delegations could not agree on whether to mention the South China Sea dispute. The Philippines has lodged a case with the arbitration court at The Hague over the South China Sea. This angers China, which says it will neither recognize nor participate in the case. Vietnam supports the Philippines in its arbitration case against China.
Though China says that it wants to improve relations with the Philippines and sent its foreign minister Wang Yi to Manila ahead of Xi’s Manila visit for this purpose, keen observers on the South China Sea see clearly that Sino-Philippine relations are facing difficulties. Though China’s foreign ministry says that China is willing to “appropriately resolve relevant issues on the basis of dialogue and negotiation”, it always insists to resolve bilaterally without leaving any scope for flexibility and on its own terms, though the issue has a larger implication as the issue also involves more than one country.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam has taken up the cudgels against China over the South China Sea issue. With a history of fights and struggle over centuries by defeating first the French and then the US to regain its sovereignty and to back up its case, the Vietnamese people are not expected to yield space as demanded by China. The rest of Asia would be willing to support Vietnam to fight for its legitimate right as there are larger issues such as rules of law mandated by the United Nations governing world trade involved and violating the Laws of the Sea by any single nation would not be acceptable for others.
Given China’s belligerence and assertiveness, a major conflagration involving China and other stakeholders in the South China Sea lurks in the horizon and threatens to disturb the delicately maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
Like Chinese President Xi, US President Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang will also represent his country for pushing up peace and stability in the region.
Diffusing tensions and resolving the issue is one of the biggest challenges that the leaders from the 21 member countries would be facing at the Manila APEC Summit meeting.
Increasing bonhomie between Vietnam and the Philippines/Strategic Partnership
As directly affected nations from the Chinese belligerence, Vietnam and the Philippines are drawn together to discuss how to cope with this new China challenge. Indeed, China has pushed its neighbours closer together and driven them into the arms of the US. Since the bilateral relations were established after the Vietnam War in 1976, both Vietnam and the Philippines have moved ahead and built strong bonding by engaging high-level dialogues and are now poised to elevate bilateral ties into a strategic partnership. In May 2014, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan had expressed aspiration towards establishing a strategic partnership between the two countries. When President Truong Tan Sang met Philippine President Aquino at the 22nd APEC summit meeting in Beijing in November 2014 at the sidelines, both the leaders agreed to convene a Joint Working Committee to start discussions on the roadmap towards this partnership.
What drives both Vietnam and the Philippines to forge this kind of strategic bonding? Apart from both being important members of the ASEAN regional groupings and coalescing common economic interests, both face common problem how to cope with the China challenge. Understandably, therefore, the idea of a strategic partnership became stronger during the oil rig row between Vietnam and China in June 2014 when China’s National Petroleum Corporation deployed a giant oil rig near the Paracel Islands, in the waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China is opposed to promote a rules-based approach in solving maritime disputes and wants to impose its policy unilaterally in flagrant violation of global rules. It is in this changing geopolitical context, both Vietnam and the Philippines find convergence of interests, which drives both to establish a strategic partnership. In this context, both Vietnam and the Philippines would seem to be natural allies in the South China Sea issue. Both countries are looking at the Japan-US ties as an example that can be emulated in their relationship.
According to Vietnam’s Ambassador to the Philippines Truong Trieu Duong, negotiations for a strategic partnership are almost over and finalising of the draft of the agreement has started. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has said that the deal could be signed on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ summit in Manila.
A strategic partnership between Manila and Hanoi would seem to make sense on a number of levels. Apart from convergence of views on South China Sea issue, where both have been working hard to counter China’s growing assertiveness, both are looking ahead to collaborate more in maritime affairs. Once the deal is concluded, it would make Vietnam the Philippines’ second strategic partner, the other being Japan.
The advent of a Vietnam-Philippines strategic partnership could be troubling for Beijing because it would send the message to the other claimants that the South China Sea issue could be resolved amongst themselves through dialogues. The message that would go loud and clear that if Vietnam and the Philippines who have substantial maritime territorial dispute, can carry out joint naval patrols, then disputes are no reason for rival maritime forces to constantly be at odds. The world would perceive the ASEAN states as pursuer of dialogue and cooperation as opposed to China’s choice of coercion, thereby discrediting China in the world. In the process, Beijing would have further strained its diplomatic ties with the ASEAN.
Though China could have been a trigger for sculpting of an eventual Vietnam-Philippine strategic partnership, it must not be seen as an informal anti-China military alliance.
Like the Philippines, Vietnam too recognises the importance of upholding ASEAN’s centrality and unity in an evolving regional architecture. On regional issues, both have a shared commitment to maintain peace in the region, ensuring that people across Southeast Asia will live in harmony and prosperity, through peaceful resolution of disputes. As the existing instruments or mechanisms relating to the promotion of maritime conflict-prevention are becoming ineffective in the face of China’s unilateral actions and frequent demonstration of the threat to use of force to assert its claims, it becomes urgent for the ASEAN to finalise a legally-binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with China.
Besides beefing up ties with the Philippines, Vietnam too is strengthening ties with other friendly countries such as Japan and India. The General Secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Community Party Nguyen Phu Trong visited Japan in early October 2015 for declaring the “Joint Vision Statement on Japan-Vietnam Relations”. Trong’s visit came fewer than three months after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with his Japanese counterpart Abe in Tokyo, where he reiterated Hanoi’s desire to ramp up the bilateral maritime security relationship, including the prospect of acquiring new patrol vessels from Japan as well as seeking the latter’s continued support in the South China Sea disputes.
Japan under Abe seeks to reinvigorate its influence in Southeast Asia in an apparent countervailing move against China’s growing assertiveness in the East China Sea. In recent years, Japan’s maritime security engagements with the region have mostly revolved around the Philippines and Vietnam – which share common frustrations over Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea. The relationship burgeoned a year later when Tokyo reiterated its commitment to this cause, most significant of all being Abe’s professed interest in supplying patrol vessels to Vietnam. Two months before the oil rig standoff, Japan and Vietnam elevated bilateral relations to Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia, on which occasion a bilateral pact was reached for Tokyo to dispatch a research team to Vietnam as a first step towards providing the patrol vessels. So what is meaning for Philippines – Vietnam – Japan Strategic Co-operation?
What is India’s position in this dispute? Like Japan, India too has deepened relations with Vietnam and engaged in oil exploration activities in areas of South China Sea that Vietnam claims its own. India wants a “code of conduct” for every nation to follow while passing through the disputed South China Sea that remains the most controversial geographical space in the Indian Ocean. Without naming China, India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar said at the third ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting at Kuala Lumpur in the presence of his counterparts from the US and China that “the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea will be concluded at an early date by consensus”. Expressing concern at the recent developments in the South China Sea, Parikkar observed: “India hopes all parties to the disputes in the South China Sea region will abide by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, ensure its effective implementation, and work together to ensure a peaceful resolution of disputes.” Indeed, maritime security is a common challenge for all stakeholders. The seas and oceans in the region are critical enablers to the region’s prosperity.
The latest issue of concern is when the US sent a Navy warship into the 12-mile territorial zone claimed by China for artificial islands in its bid to assert Washington’s position that the archipelago lies within international waters where ships from all nations are free to navigate. This drew a sharp rebuke from Beijing. Beijing warned Washington not to “cause trouble”.
The most aggressive of the claimant countries, China, claims authority over hundreds of islands within the controversial “nine-dash line,” an ill-defined loop encompassing most of the South China Sea. It was for this reason that China was angered when the US sent warship patrol near artificial islands and warned the US not to ‘create trouble’. Though China bases its claims on survey expeditions, fishing activity and naval patrols dating back as far as the 15th century, the question of historical sovereignty becomes difficult to sort out. To prove its claims, China is making its reclamation bids in a furious and aggressive manner, much to the worry of other claimant countries.
The US has not taken a position on the various competing claims in the South China Sea. However, the US contends that the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea does not allow China to claim as sovereign territory islands built atop reefs that were submerged at low tide and to use them to assert claims to territorial waters. The dispatch of the warships by the US into the 12-mile zone claimed by China was to defend what it regards as freedom of navigation on international waters.
India’s position goes along the line of the US, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The UN tribunal is unlikely to rule directly on the Philippines’ claim of sovereignty. It is expected to decide the nature of the reef itself and whether the Philippines is entitled to an economic zone of 200 miles. The fact that the court took the case at all is a victory. Other claimants might be emboldened to file a legal challenge against China, possibly forcing it to accept that it cannot bully its neighbours with “ancient” claims on islands far from its shores. A favourable final ruling for Manila, perhaps coming next year, should help pressure China to abide by universal rules.
India is not a member of the APEC but aspiring to be one. As an emerging economic power, it would be difficult to keep India out from this important regional group. China seems to have sensed that it is getting increasingly isolated from the regional countries and the international community. In a sort of damage-control initiative, Chinese President Xi visited Vietnam and Singapore and sent Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Malaysia to heal the rift. Vietnamese President is likely to make a strong statement on the South China Sea at the APEC Summit and is likely to garner support from other participating leaders. This does not bode well for China. Its stance on the South China Sea is likely to propel other Asian countries to work harder so that peace and stability in the region is maintained.