Will the Filipino President’s Vietnam visit give sleepless nights to China?

More than four months after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on January 29 landed in Hanoi on a two-day visit, giving Manila a much-needed opportunity to strengthen ties with the Southeast Asian nation which is also facing its claim over the South China Sea being challenged by China.

In the strategic circle, the Philippines President’s visit to Vietnam is considered very important as it has led to Manila deepening its maritime cooperation and forging greater regional cooperation with Vietnam on South China Sea disputes.

On January 24, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing’s claim to the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is backed by history. China issued this statement to counter Vietnam’s claim that it has sufficient evidence to claim sovereignty over the Islands.

Vietnam calls Paracel island as Hoang Sa Island and Spratly Island as Trong Sa Island. It says its sovereign claim over Hoang Sa Island has been established since the 17th century in accordance with international law. It also says it has full legal basis and sufficient historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over Trong Sa Island.

In 1974, China invaded the Paracel Island (Hoang Sa Island) and since then, it has gone down in history as the first Sino-Vietnam naval fight in the quest for control over the South China Sea. The Sino-Vietnam naval conflict over Trong Sa Island (Spratly Island) in 1988 is seen as the second instance of skirmish between Hanoi and Beijing over their respective claims over the South China Sea. Since then, tension between the two countries has not eased.

The Philippines Navy is regularly facing harassment from China’s PLA Navy and maritime militias around the Second Thomas Shoal of the South China Sea where Manila has grounded a ship called Sierra Madre since 1999 to assert its sovereign claims in the region. China wants the Philippines to remove the grounded ship that serves its outpost in the South China Sea. According to Global Inquirer, a Philippines-based news portal, China has currently deployed 50 maritime militia ships at Mischief Reef to prevent Filipino troops from resupplying food, water and other goods to naval personnel stationed at the decrepit World War-II era ship, Sierra Madre.

Manila maintains that whatever be challenges, it will continue to use the grounded ship around the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea as its outpost so long as Beijing does not remove all illegal structures built within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. Since neither side is willing to give in, the Second Shoal area of the South China Sea has become a flashpoint of simmering tension between the two countries.

On the back of it, military chief of the Philippines General Romeo Barner, as per The Japan Times, recently announced plans to upgrade nine territorial features in the area, including setting up a desalination plant at the Second Thomas Shoal in order to make the grounded Sierra Madre ship on which troops are stationed, more habitable.

For both the Philippines and Vietnam, the immediate challenge is not just staying their course in the South China Sea, but also to make other claimants like Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan to come on board over a separate code of conduct on this marginal sea of Western Pacific Ocean which is a major shipping route through which more than $3 trillion worth of global trade in goods annually pass.

The South China Sea is estimated to possess 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  Besides, it is known as the world’s fishing bowl, providing livelihoods to millions of people across the region.  It should be noted that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been trying for years for an effective and substantive ‘Code of Conduct’ to govern their activities in the South China Sea. But China, which continues to brazenly ignore and discard UNCLOS, offers only lip service to finalisation of the Code of Conduct.

In this light, the Philippines wants to bring about a separate code of conduct among Southeast Asian countries on the South China Sea. The issue was on the table during the Philippines President’s visit to Vietnam. As per Global Inquirer, an MoU was also signed between the Coast Guards of the two countries for better coordination and managing conflicts in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

However, what appears to be unnerving China is Philippines President Marcos Jr’s visit to Vietnam has taken place close on the heels of US President Joe Biden’s trip to Hanoi. This visit helped the US in upgrading its relations with Vietnam. The two countries have already established comprehensive strategic partnership. China saw all this through the prism of “anti-China” alignment. By facilitating President Marcos Jr’s visit to Vietnam, the Philippines, which is a close ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific region, has reignited Beijing’s fear of its encirclement.