Bizarre waters

By: Reyshimar Arguelles

THE Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Philippines have shared a long and yet intriguing history together. Both were colonies of two powerful European countries and both were occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War.

What makes this relationship so intriguing is the fact that, after the Fall of Saigon at the hands of communists in 1975, Vietnam saw itself at the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War era. But even then, the US-aligned Philippines was still able to maintain close ties with the newly formed communist state.

The ideological divide did not, in any way, stymie the bonds that have bound Vietnam and the Philippines even after communism’s supposed “collapse” in the early 90s. The Philippines itself stood up against its former colonizer over naval bases maintained and controlled by the US.

Vietnam, on the other hand, has had an even more tumultuous relationship with its ideological mother hen. For much of the Cold War and until today, the Chinese have claimed a good part of the oil-rich Gulf of Tonkin, over which Vietnam has long been fighting for. Sure enough, both the Philippines and Vietnam see themselves riding the same boat in a sea dominated by rival economic and military power mongers.

With the end of the Cold War, ideological roles have since played a lesser role in geopolitics as countries look for nationalistic and economic value in their dealings with regional neighbors. But when the need arises and a larger, more pressing threat becomes the enemy of all, cultural and ideological differences are considered secondary to the urgent need for solidarity.

There’s no place in the world where tensions could arise at the slightest sighs of resistance quite like the bizarre waters right smack in the middle of Southeast Asia. Various nations claim certain portions of the area based on what has been stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Despite several arbitration rulings, however, China continues to assert its jurisdiction over a large swath of the area in clear violation of international law.

The creation of China’s nine-dash line and the ensuing construction of military installations near the West Philippine Sea and other territorial waters in the region only contributed to the Asian power’s notoriety as an existential threat that could only be countered through solidarity. As with other countries whose claims are overlapped by this grotesque behemoth, the Philippines and Vietnam have been at the receiving end of China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Just last year, President Duterte met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Singapore. In between talks of economic commitments, the two leaders discussed how best to deal with a bully out to dominate the entire playground. But while Vietnam sought a tougher stance against the building of artificial islands and China’s establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone, Duterte, on the other hand, sought to avoid drawing any red lines and played coy with the superpower.

Nonetheless, the differences in foreign policy did not dilute the feeling of solidarity that the countries were able to demonstrate, a recent example of which was the sinking of a Philippine fishing vessel by a Chinese civilian ship near Rector Bank. The crew was to survive after they had been rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.

This was both a moment of anger and a moment of triumph. Of course, the anger is directed at Beijing which had the reputation of using physical means to assert its dominance (which it did when a Chinese vessel also sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel on 2014). President Duterte also drew ire for his supposed “double standards” in handling the issue. It’s only situations like this that the President’s penchant for “hyperbolic” language takes a backseat in favor of inquiries and investigations.

For the anti-China and anti-administration crowd, on the other hand, this was a moment of triumph proving that we are not alone in facing the demon and its cohorts.

Then again, the people lambasting both China and the Duterte administration for championing a police state are the same people rallying behind the Good Samaritan that is Vietnam, which is just as notorious for having an “appalling human rights record” according to Human Rights Watch.

Could our relationship become even more intriguing than this?