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Philippines, Vietnam Affirm United Front on S. China Sea

Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang applauds during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO summit in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 17, 2015. Presidents of the Philippines and Vietnam are showing a more united front on the disputed South China Sea issue on the sidelines of the summit.

The presidents of the Philippines and Vietnam are showing a more united front on the disputed South China Sea issue on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit, where the topic is officially not up for discussion.

The two countries elevated their relations to a “strategic partnership” with a signed joint statement Tuesday. The agreement is aimed at boosting their ties on defense, trade and maritime cooperation.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino welcomed “the active engagement and cooperation” between their 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.

The Philippines expects more “goodwill visits” from Vietnam’s navy. The two sides also plan coastguard and fishery exchanges. The partnership also looks to strengthen economic and cultural ties.

The Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which China says it has “indisputable sovereignty” over. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have competing stakes in the resource-rich sea.

Speaking through an interpreter at the Philippine presidential palace Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang said his country had a common concern of seeking peace and stability in the sea where China has been building out artificial islands that the three countries claim.

“We also reaffirm the importance of ensuring this stability, maritime security, safety and freedom of navigation and over flight in the South China Sea as well as settling maritime disputes on the basis of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said.

Based on an annex in the convention, the Philippines in 2013 filed an arbitration case against China questioning its claim to nearly the entire sea. China rejects the case and has not participated. Vietnam has been a close observer of the case and analysts say it is seriously considering taking legal action also.

Richard Heydarian a geopolitical analyst with Manila-based De LaSalle University said the increased joint exercises signaled that Vietnam, a Communist country, was taking a harder line against China’s ramped up activities.

“The message is very clear, that China’s neighbors are beginning to form an informal alliance,” he said.

The bilateral meeting took place on the heels of China President Xi Jinping’s arrival in Manila for APEC. Ahead of the leaders’ summit, China and the Philippines agreed not to bring up their spat at the conference, deferring official discussions over the issue to the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur later this week.