The Philippines plans to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam, paving the way for the two countries to boost maritime security cooperation in the face of contentious territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said this week the pact will be signed on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, a three-day event opening Monday in Manila.
Vietnam has not yet confirmed Jose’s announcement and details of the deal have not been made public. But officials from both sides have previously said the agreement, which the two sides began negotiating last year, is likely to be comprehensive and include trade as well as maritime coordination and cooperation.
Attorney Ta Van Tai, former research associate and lecturer at the Harvard Law School, said it’s obvious that Vietnam is getting closer to the Philippines because of Beijing.
"South East Asian countries are not scared of each other. They are afraid of the ‘big boy,’ China," he said. "Seeking alliance with the Philippines is a right move by Vietnam.”
Tai added that bolstering ties with the Philippines will also help Vietnam get the attention of the United States, a longtime ally of Manila that has already increased maritime aid to Hanoi.
Vietnamese officials repeatedly have expressed their foreign policy of not siding with other countries to counter any third nation.
The Philippines is the most vocal among claimants in contested waters against Beijing. Manila has filed a legal case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea disputing Beijing’s claim to waters and land features in parts of the South China Sea.
The international arbitration court, which China boycotted, has ruled it has jurisdiction in the case.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Philippines last year, while relations between Vietnam and China soured over a controversial Chinese oil rig that was placed in disputed waters.
In the presence of the host’s president, he said the two countries "shared deep concerns" over China’s "violations of international law" in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Hanoi has dismissed an earlier statement made by Chinese President Xi Jinping over disputed islands.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh reaffirmed that “Vietnam has full legal and historical evidence for its indisputable sovereignty over” the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
In a speech in Singapore last week, Xi said that islands in the South China Sea “have been China’s territory since ancient times” and that “the Chinese government must take responsibility to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime interests.”
He made the remarks shortly after a state visit to Vietnam.
In addition to Vietnam and the Philippines, China also has competing South China Sea claims with Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.