MANILA/HONG KONG: The Philippine navy will soon return to a South China Sea island it lost to Vietnam 40 years ago to drink beer and play volleyball with Vietnamese sailors, symbolising how once-suspicious neighbours 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 fear of China as well as doubts among some, especially in Japan, over the US commitment to the region.
When US President Barack Obama visits Asia this month he will see signs that once-disparate nations are strategising for the future, even though he will likely seek to shore-up faith in America’s “pivot” back to the region. Among the new network of ties: growing cooperation between Japan and India; Vietnam courting India and Russia; and Manila and Hanoi, the two capitals most feeling China’s wrath over claims to the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, 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, a Vietnamese-held island in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea. 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, 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 will 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 told Reuters.
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 finalised, 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 authorised to speak publicly.
While the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each claim some of the Spratly islands, China, Taiwan and Vietnam lay claim to the entire chain.
China also claims 90 percent of the 3.5 million sq km (1.35 million sq mile) South China Sea, its reach displayed on its official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that extends deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over uninhabited islets that are administered by Tokyo.
Doubts about Washington’s future willingness and ability to defend Japan simmer beneath the surface in Tokyo, although Japanese and US officials routinely say the US-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of regional security.
China, for its part, accuses the various claimants of stirring up trouble. Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, at a news conference with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Beijing on Tuesday, called on Washington to restrain Japan and chided the Philippines.
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