The Philippine Navy is set to soon return to a South China Sea island it lost to Vietnam 40 years ago to drink beer and play volleyball with Vietnamese sailors, symbolizing how once-suspicious neighbors are cooperating in the face of China’s assertiveness in disputed waters.
Diplomats and experts describe the nascent partnership as part of a web of evolving relationships across Asia that are being driven by a fear of China as well as doubts among some, especially in Japan, over US commitments to the region.
During US President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Asia this month, he will see signs that once-disparate nations are strategizing for the future, even though he will likely seek to shore-up faith the US’ “pivot” back to the region.
Among the new network of ties are: growing cooperation between Japan and India, Vietnam courting India and Russia and the two capitals most feeling China’s wrath over claims to the potentially energy-rich South China Sea — Manila and Hanoi — working more closely together. The Philippines and Vietnam are also talking to Malaysia about China.
“We are seeing a definite trend here, one that is likely to accelerate,” said Rory Medcalf, a regional security specialist at Australia’s independent Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “It is quite a creative dance as countries hedge and try to cover themselves for multiple possible futures.”
While it was unlikely the new-found relationships would become military alliances, there was an intensity to their strategic discussions, including the sharing of assessments about China’s rise and influence, Medcalf said.
Regional diplomats confirmed increasing levels of trust at a working level, as countries find that China’s projection of naval power into Asia’s waters is driving them together.
That trust will be on display in early June on Southwest Cay (Nanzih Reef, 南子礁), a Vietnamese-held island in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which are also claimed by Taiwan. In early 1975, forces from then-South Vietnam took Southwest Cay by stealth when its occupiers, a Philippine naval detachment, sailed a couple of miles to Northeast Cay (Beizih Reef, 北子礁), which was under Manila’s control, for a party.
The South Vietnamese were soon displaced by the communist forces of a victorious Hanoi and the new Vietnam and the Philippines found themselves on opposite sides of the Cold War for many years.
A 40-strong Philippine naval delegation is to return to Southwest Cay to party — this time to mark budding naval cooperation between Hanoi and Manila even though both still claim the island, Philippine and Vietnamese military officials said.
They said a day of beach volleyball, drinks and music was being planned in a celebration unprecedented in the recent history of the Spratly Islands.
The precise date of the party on Southwest Cay, which is almost equidistant from Vietnam and the Philippines, has yet to be finalized, the military officials said. The Chinese navy had not been invited, they added.
“We actually had this scheduled last year, but Typhoon Haiyan intervened... We are lining up more activities in the future,” said a senior Philippine naval official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
While Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each claim some of the Spratly islands, Taiwan, China and Vietnam lay claim to the entire chain.