A man paddles by a bamboo boat to transit to a bigger boat on a bay of Ly Son Islands of Vietnam's central Quang Ngai Province. On March 3, 2012 China detained 21 Vietnamese fishermen and their two boats while they were plying the waters around the Paracel Islands.
In the stand-off with China at Scarborough Shoal, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a text message to the Inquirer: "All, not just the Philippines, will ultimately be negatively affected if we do not take a stand... all should consider what China is endeavoring to do in the Scarborough Shoal in order to pursue its so-called full sovereign rights over the entire West Philippine Sea on the basis of [its] nine-dash line claim, using a historical record that's clearly baseless."
Response, or at least public response, from the ASEAN countries around the East Sea (South China Sea) to the Philippines' call has been underwhelming. Virtually no response has been reported, and none has been published on the English language websites of the ministries of foreign affairs of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The only exception is a statement in Vietnamese by the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson on April 25, 2012, published on the Vietnamese language website of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating that Vietnam is "extremely concerned about the stand-off at Scarborough Shoal" and that Vietnam "believes that the disputing parties need to exercise restraint and resolve the issue peacefully on the basis of international law, especially United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, and the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea."
Perhaps that might be taken to mean veiled support for the Philippines' proposal for a legal solution based on UNCLOS, but even if that is true, the support is somewhat muted. Certainly, public support for the Philippines from ASEAN as a whole is disappointing.
Unfortunately, such lack of mutual support seems to be the modus operandi for ASEAN parties in the South China Sea disputes. Retracing our step back in time over the past year or so, we can see that when China detained Vietnamese fishermen operating near the disputed Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, no ASEAN country voiced support for a fair solution. When China exerted pressure against the Philippines in the Reed Bank area, no ASEAN country voiced support for the Philippines. When China pressured Indian oil company ONGC Videsh to withdraw from Blocks 127 and 128 off the coast of Vietnam, no ASEAN country voiced support for Vietnam. When Chinese maritime surveillance ships and fishing boats sabotaged equipment of Vietnamese survey ships, no ASEAN country voiced support for Vietnam. When Chinese ships threatened to ram vessels carrying out surveys on behalf of the Philippines at the Reed Bank in March 2011, no ASEAN country voiced support for the Philippines.
Clearly, regardless of what mistakes the ASEAN parties in the South China Sea disputes have made in the past, and what mistakes they are currently making, from now on all must change this approach.
In this change, the Philippines and Vietnam are key. Their geographical positions with respect to China's notorious U-shaped line mean that, among the ASEAN parties in the South China Sea disputes, their maritime spaces are threatened the most. Furthermore, some of the threats they face are of similar nature. If Vietnam and the Philippines cannot speak with a common and unequivocal voice, there is not much chance that the ASEAN parties in the South China Sea disputes can do so, and there is even less chance that ASEAN can do so. If ASEAN can find a common voice on the South China Sea disputes, that common voice is likely to be somewhat diluted and equivocal.
It is high time for Philippine and Vietnamese experts and policymakers to meet and negotiate a common statement that will be mutually supportive of both countries. For example, the Philippines and Vietnam can make a joint statement against the use of rocks or small islands to claim excessive maritime space, against the argument of historical rights over most of the waters of the South China Sea, and for the effort to define the disputed area. If negotiations are deadlocked, the Philippines and Vietnam can call on the other parties in the disputes to agree to submitting appropriate questions to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Going further, the Philippines and Vietnam could negotiate the limits of the waters belonging to the Spratlys (Truong Sa) and then voice support for each other if China tries to exert pressure on the Philippines or Vietnam outside these limits. For example, the Philippines might propose to Vietnam that the waters in the Reed Bank area that are more than 12 nautical miles from any rocks are not part of the Spratlys' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and Vietnam might make a similar proposal for the Vanguard Bank area. This can be done without either country giving up its claim to any island or rock. If the Philippines and Vietnam can speak together and unequivocally that a particular incident caused by China attempting to expand the South China Sea disputes beyond what is reasonable according to international law, that will bring a new dynamic to the battle of foreign relations and the battle of hearts and minds.
It is obvious what keeping silent when someone other than yourself is pressured by China may lead to. Martin NiemÃ¶ller, a pastor who lived in Germany described the problem with this approach eloquently:
"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."
The policymakers of the Philippines and Vietnam will do well for their countries to heed such wisdom and to make use of the fact that that the Philippines and Vietnam can provide diplomatic support to each other in protecting their sovereign rights over the waters of the South China Sea without prejudice to the question of sovereignty over the islands and rocks of the Spratlys.
By Duong Danh Huy
The writer is from the Southeast Asian Sea Research Foundation