Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPPartnershipsSoutheast Asia

Hanoi, Manila to boost maritime domain awareness, South China Sea cooperation

Maria T. Reyes

Recent steps by the Philippines and Vietnam to deepen cooperation could expand maritime domain awareness and help ensure a rules-based order in the South China Sea amid Beijing’s militarization of the strategic waterway, analysts say.

The Southeast Asian nations agreed to boost collaboration between their coast guards and to “promote trust, confidence and understanding through dialogue and cooperative activities.” The agreements were signed during Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s state visit to Hanoi in late January 2024.

Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong welcomes Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to Hanoi in January 2024. The nations agreed to boost maritime cooperation and prevent incidents in the disputed South China Sea.

During his meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, Marcos said his nation is committed to partnering with Vietnam, a “like-minded state.”

“As maritime nations, we share a similar assessment of the current state of our regional environment with other maritime nations,” he said. “Our countries have crucial roles to play in shaping the regional security discourse and in upholding the rules-based international order.”

The nations have competing claims over the resource-rich South China Sea, a vital global trade route. Both have had tense confrontations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety in defiance of a 2016 international tribunal ruling that the claim has no legal basis.

Marcos noted that Vietnam is “the sole strategic partner of the Philippines” in Southeast Asia, stressing that maritime cooperation is fundamental to the relationship.

The nations’ recent memorandums of understanding could “pave the way for more robust confidence building, maritime domain awareness and interoperability cooperation to not only stabilize conditions along their maritime border but also potentially contribute to ensuring that the South China Sea in its entirety remains open and rules-based amidst China’s desire to keep it closed and asymmetrically militarized,” Manila-based geopolitical analyst Don McLain Gill told FORUM.

“From Manila’s perspective, this represents a consistent and proactive desire by the Marcos Jr. administration to break out of the protracted deadlock we have been in for years due to Beijing’s unwillingness to cooperate for the peace of the maritime domain,” he said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Hanoi and Manila are members, and the PRC have been negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea for years, but analysts contend that Beijing is delaying the process for fear that such an agreement could hinder its efforts to impose its maritime claims.

The Philippines-Vietnam agreement is likely close to a bilateral code of conduct; in late 2023, Marcos said Manila had approached Malaysia and Vietnam for separate codes of conduct. “I hope that we can seriously implement this agreement as quickly as we can,” he said of the accord with Hanoi.

Gill said the deal with Vietnam is “a great step towards that goal and perhaps we may witness a future agreement of this nature between the Philippines and Malaysia as well.”

“There is a shared vision among the ASEAN countries towards maintaining international law-based peace in Southeast Asia’s maritime domain,” he said. “Hence, this overarching goal, along with the absence of expansionist ambitions, serve as a positive foundation for the blossoming of the bilateral relationship.”

Maria T. Reyes is a FORUM contributor reporting from Manila, Philippines.

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