Vietnamese, Filipino troops play soccer on disputed Spratly isle

Event underscores cooperation in face of increasingly assertive China

MANILA - Vietnamese and Philippine troops got together on a disputed island in the South China Sea yesterday to play soccer and volleyball - as well as to drink beer - in a display of unity that will not go unnoticed in Beijing.

Philippine naval officials billed the event on the Vietnamese-held island as a chance to show the world that there can be harmony in the South China Sea despite a web of overlapping claims to the potentially energy-rich waters.

The gathering on South-west Cay in the Spratly archipelago also symbolises how once-suspicious neighbours are cooperating in the face of China's growing assertiveness in disputed waters.

About 40 Philippine naval personnel sailed to the island for the day-long event, Philippine naval officials said.

The Philippines occupied South-west Cay until early 1975, when troops from then South Vietnam seized it after Philippine forces sailed a couple of miles to North-east Cay, which was under Manila's control, for a party.

The South Vietnamese were soon displaced by the communist forces of a victorious Hanoi.

Besides playing soccer and volleyball, the troops yesterday held a tug-of-war competition, put on cultural shows involving singing and dancing, and shared food and beer, said Philippine naval spokesman Gerard Fabic.

In a joint statement, the Philippine and Vietnamese navies said the sport and cultural presentations would help foster friendly ties.

"This serves as a model of cooperation for other navies to emulate," said the statement, without naming any other countries.

The gathering underscores the growing cooperation between Hanoi and Manila even though both still claim South-west Cay and dispute other islands. South-west Cay is almost equidistant from Vietnam and the Philippines.

"We are not only bringing down walls of mistrust and suspicion with one another but also building trust and confidence towards peacefully resolving our competing claims," said a senior Philippine naval official who declined to be identified.

China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea. Other claimants to parts of the waters are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Manila and Hanoi have in recent years accused Beijing of increasingly flexing its military muscle in the region, including the deployment of a Chinese oil rig to the north of the Spratlys. Vietnam also accuses China of sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel last month near the oil rig.

Manila is investigating claims that China has begun a series of land-reclamation projects on reefs within the archipelago, potentially to build an airstrip.

Diplomats and experts have described the nascent partnership between Hanoi and Manila as part of a web of evolving ties across Asia being driven by fear of China as well as doubts among some, especially in Japan, about the United States' commitment to the region.

They have said that there are increasing levels of trust at a working level, as countries find that China's projection of naval power into Asia's waters is driving them together.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE