The Philippines and Vietnam have agreed to strengthen coordination in dealing with maritime issues, particularly in working on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Wednesday.
This as Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief General Andres Centino inspected the facilities at the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) site in Balabac, Palawan.
Facilities like the runways within the 300-hectare island airbase can be used by both the military and civilians in Balabac. Meanwhile, Balabac’s Narciso del Rosario Naval Station is also being eyed for an EDCA site once a larger pier is built for use by American and Filipino warships.
Philippine diplomats traveled to Ha Long, Vietnam on Monday and Tuesday to hold talks with their Vietnamese counterparts during the 10th Philippines-Vietnam Joint Permanent Working Group on Maritime and Ocean Concerns.
In a statement, DFA said the two countries also agreed to explore a “broad range of potential maritime cooperation activities to enhance their strategic partnership.”
“The two countries expressed serious concern over unilateral activities that undermine peace and stability in the region. They committed to work together to protect their rights and legitimate interests under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and enhance confidence-building measures between relevant agencies,” the DFA also said.
DFA Assistant Secretary for Maritime and Ocean Affairs Maria Angela Ponce, who headed the Philippine delegation to the meeting, said discussions with their Vietnamese counterparts were “critical” in strengthening ties between the two Southeast Asian countries.
Meanwhile, Australia urged members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to compromise their rights over the South China Sea in crafting the Code of Conduct in the contested waters.
“We would urge states not to agree to anything that lessened their rights,” said Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, in an interview with CNN Philippines as she began her four-day visit to the Philippines.
“This is a matter ultimately for ASEAN to consider,” she added.
Saying Canberra respects the principle of ASEAN centrality, Wong said her call only stemmed from the standpoint of a nation that also has an interest in the disputed waterway, particularly with regards to peace and stability in the region.
US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson also said she was willing to meet with governors who have expressed concern about the opening of four additional sites that the US military would have access to under the EDCA.
Carlson made the statement after Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba expressed apprehension over his province being the site of one of the new EDCA sites. Last month, 5,000 Cagayanos joined a prayer vigil against EDCA.
At the same time, Carlson declared that Washington’s commitment to support the Philippines is not about any other country as the ties between them stand on their own.
“The Mutual Defense Treaty dates back to 1951. Our commitment to the Philippines stands on its own. Our relationship stands on its own, it’s not about a third country, it’s not about a single challenge. But we certainly have global challenges when it comes to climate change, when it comes to cybersecurity, when it comes to environmental degradation of our surrounding seas and climate,” Carlson said in an interview with the ABS-CBN News Channel.
Carlson was asked to comment on China’s previous statement that the increased presence of the US in the Philippines through the EDCA sites affect regional stability.
“There’s so much that we’re working together. It’s not about China. It certainly is not about China alone, it’s about what we do together… It dates back decades. I understand that that argument is out there but that’s not why we’re committed to the Philippines,” she said.
Carlson also said the “EDCA sites can be used for whatever the Philippine government invites the United States to do.”
Five countries from the 10-member ASEAN have their own respective claims over the South China Sea, which all overlap with China’s. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Wong said Australia backs the Philippines in its fight for the West Philippine Sea, a part of the bigger South China Sea that China also claims. The Philippines’ right over the West Philippine Sea is based on the internationally recognized United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and 2016 Arbitral Ruling, Wong said.
“We all want a region in which rules ameliorate the exercise of power. And it is through that that countries can maintain their sovereignty and their capacity to make their own decisions. So, we were very supportive of that tribunal ruling,” she said. “We don’t want a region which is dominated to an extent where other countries cannot make their own decisions.”
The new EDCA sites earlier identified by the Philippine government are in Balabac Island in Palawan and in Naval Base Camilo Osias in Sta Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan; and Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela.
The sites in Isabela and Cagayan in the northernmost tip of the country, however, have alarmed Beijing because of its proximity to Taiwan, whose independence is being threatened by China.
“These are not our sites. We do not have any rights to these sites. It’s not as if somehow somebody snaps a finger and all of a sudden everything is open to the United States,” the US ambassador said.
Earlier, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. already said the additional sites under the country’s EDCA with the US would not be used for offensive actions.
While on his way to Washington early this month for an official visit, the President also said the Philippines would not be used as a staging post for any kind of military action.
Also on Wednesday, the Japanese Embassy in Manila said Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa met in Tokyo and exchanged views on the situation in the East and South China Seas and “economic coercion.”
Manalo and Hayashi also talked about the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the nuclear and missile launches initiated by North Korea, the embassy statement added.
“Both sides reaffirmed the importance of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and preserving the rules-based order and good governance,” it said.
“They also discussed ASEAN centrality, and the need to support institutions and mechanisms like the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum,” it added.
In an earlier speech at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Manalo said maritime cooperation will always be a key feature of the ties between Manila and Tokyo.
“Being island states binds us in the common objective of keeping the seas of the Indo-Pacific safe, secure and peaceful,” he said.
The ministers welcomed progress in Japan’s defense equipment transfer to the Philippines, according to the ministry.
In April, Japan decided to provide equipment to the armed forces of “like-minded” countries that share its values to improve their defense capabilities in a framework called official security assistance, or OSA.
According to the Japanese Embassy in Manila, Manalo also expressed appreciation for Toyko’s efforts to include the perspective of the Indo-Pacific and areas of concern for non-G7 countries in its preparation for the G7 Hiroshima Summit.