This June 40 sailors from the Philippine navy will land on the island of Southwest Cay. Philippine diplomacy is meant to blunt Chinese expansion into the South China Sea.
Located in the Spratly Islands, South Vietnam lured the Filipino garrison away in 1975 by inviting them to a party and landing troops on the unprotected island. A united Vietnam took control of Southwest Cay and has refused to leave. Rather than fight, sailors from both countries will play music, drink beer, and have volleyball matches.
While volleyball, beer, and music are unlikely to form a military alliance, it will help Vietnam and the Philippines find other areas of common ground. The upcoming volleyball game on Southwest Cay is similar to President Nixon’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy that led to improved relations with China.
The Philippines, Brunei, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia all occupy parts of the Spratly Islands. Vietnam and Taiwan claim the entire island chain. China only wants 90 percent. The area has the potential of having vast mineral, natural gas, and oil reserves.
In March, Manila filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague challenging Beijing’s desire for the South China Sea islands. China refused to participate in the proceedings. It prefers backroom diplomacy and intimidation. Losing the Philippine based challenge could result in a Chinese loss of face, something the Asian economic power wants to avoid.
The Philippine diplomatic effort in the South China Sea is part of a greater attempt to blunt Chinese expansion in the region. The volleyball game with Vietnam was originally scheduled for last year. Typhoon Haiyan cancelled the event. More joint activities between the two countries are forthcoming. A Vietnamese cruiser will soon arrive in Manila on a goodwill tour. Philippine General Emmanuel Bautista will visit Hanoi in May.
Another area of the Filipino defiance of China is the half sunken ship Sierra Madre. The ship, a rusting World War II vessel, was intentionally sunk by the Philippine navy in 1999. Eight Filipino marines guard the ship and treat it as a military base.
An incident between China and the Philippines was avoided in late March when two Chinese coast guard ships were outmaneuvered by a smaller Philippine supply ship. The civilian captain entered shallow waters and where the Chinese ships could not follow. The captain reached the Sierra Madre without incident where he delivered food, water, and a new garrison. The incident further embarrassed China when the Philippines submitted its case to the UN international tribunal for review.
The Chinese state-run Global Times published an editorial calling the Philippines a small and weak nation that has taken the lead in provoking China. The editorial claimed China could force the marines off the ship anytime it wished. Doing so would be similar to arresting criminals.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh plan to extend their new found cooperation to Malaysia. The goal would be to settle disputes the three countries have over the Spratly Islands and develop common policies concerning China. Cooperation among the Southeast Asian countries is likely to grow. Through goodwill exchanges, the Philippine diplomacy will continue creating policies to blunt Chinese expansion into the South China Sea.
By Brian T. Yates