Competition deepens in the East Sea (South China Sea)

HANOI, Nov 3, 2011. In the run-up to this year’s East Asia Summit (EAS), the Philippines and Vietnam have sent a preemptive joint message: they are not willing to yield to rising Chinese pressure on unresolved South China Sea territorial issues.

The new loose alliance between the two Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members aims to enhance their strategic cooperation and has effectively invited other regional powers to help counterbalance China’s claims in the brewing multilateral dispute.

The EAS will take place in mid-November in Bali, Indonesia, and for the first time will also include the United States and Russia. East Sea (South China Sea) tensions are expected to feature prominently at the multilateral meeting, which will see several world leaders, including United States President Barack Obama, in attendance.

In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam have taken a similar two-way diplomatic approach by strengthening relations with China’s traditional regional competitors, including Japan and India, while at the same time maintaining dialogue and growing commercial ties with Beijing.

At the same time, the ASEAN neighbors have strengthened their bilateral security ties in an apparent bid to counterbalance China’s rising naval power. On October 27, Philippine President Benigno Aquino signed several maritime pacts with his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang, including naval agreements to share information, respond to natural disasters, prevent smuggling and piracy, and protect marine resources in the South China Sea.

Sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea is contested by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. In the past six months, tensions have spiked through incidents at sea while at the same time claimants have released a series of joint statements aimed at finding a common and peaceful solution to their overlapping territorial claims. Many areas of the South China Sea are believed to be rich in fossil fuels and are important to regional navigation and trade.

By joining forces, the Philippines and Vietnam aim to enhance their negotiating leverage vis-a-vis China. Beijing has repeatedly stated its preference to pursue bilateral agreements with smaller claimant countries while the latter have pushed for a binding agreement through multilateral channels led by the 10-member ASEAN.

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