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The Philippines and Vietnam to Forge Strategic Partnership  By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0035/ 2015

What is the recent trajectory of Philippines-Vietnam relations, and to what extent are the South China Sea territorial disputes driving closer ties?

Philippines-Vietnam relations have been on an upward trend since October 2010 following the state visit to Hanoi by President Benigno Aquino and subsequent visits to the Philippines byietnam’s president in 2011 and prime minister in 2014. Shared concerns over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea is the main driver for political, security and defense cooperation. The Philipines and Vietnam signed a broadranging Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defence cooperation in 2010. The following year the two sides adopted a MOU on cooperation between their navies. In July 2014, Vietnamese navy personnel on Southwest Cay in the Spratly archipelago hosted Filipino counterparts for a goodwill sports festival. This activity was a symbolic display of unity and was aimed at promoting confidence building. In November 2014 two of Vietnam’s most modern frigates made their first port visit to the Philippines.

What are the other key areas of cooperation, aside from security, driving bilateral ties?

The Philippines and Vietnam cooperate in thirteen areas: political and economic relations, trade and investment, security and defense, agriculture, food security, fisheries, education and training, culture and tourism under the current bilateral Action Plan for 2011-2016. Economic relations are limited; two-way trade amounted to US $2.6 billion in 2013 and both sides have set the modest target of raising this to US $3 billion by 2016. Philippine investment in Vietnam is a modest US $285 million, while Vietnamese investment is negligible. The main driver for cooperation is shared concern over maritme issues such as illegal fishing, search and rescue, transnational crime and natural disasters. In 2011, the two sides set up a hotline between their Coast Guards. Both the Philippines and Vietnam want to enhance their clout in regional affairs. This convergence of political interests has led them to begin discussions on a formal strategic partnership to enhance all aspects of their bilateral relations.

How compatible are both countries’ regional agendas, in terms of great power ties, regional trade schemes and economic interests?

Both countires share the the common agenda of strengthening the Association of South  East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in regional security and ASEAN’s role in negotiating a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with China. The Philippines has mounted a direct legal challenge to China’s actions in the South China Sea, while Vietnam has only recently tabled a statement of interest to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Philippines is an ally of the United States and welcomes the rotational presence of U.S. military forces on its soil. Vietnam eschews alignment with any major power. Both countries cooperate with Japan in maritime security but diverge on arms procurement. Russia is Vietnam’s main supplier, while the Philippines sources its arms from the United States, South Korea and Europe. The Philippines and Vietnam are both participants in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership; but Vietnam, unlike the Philippines, is seeking membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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