Philippines, Vietnam boost ties as South China Sea feuds fester

The alleged on-going land reclamation of China at Subi reef is seen from Pagasa island. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - The Philippines and Vietnam signed a strategic partnership on Tuesday (Nov 17) deepening security ties in the face of Beijing's increased assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

Philippine leader Benigno Aquino and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang expressed concern over tensions in the strategic sea - which Hanoi calls the East Sea - home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes.

"Mr President (Aquino) and I shared our concerns over the recent developments in the East Sea, or the South China Sea, affecting trust, peace, security and stability in the region," Sang said.

He added that the pact marked a "new era for cooperation" between the two countries.

Aquino said the deal would "deepen our cooperation, particularly in the areas of economic, agricultural, defence and maritime engagement - areas that are truly vital to the strategic interests of both our nations".

"In terms of defence relations, we welcome the active engagement and cooperation between or respective defence and military establishments," he said.

Aquino cited a football game between Filipino and Vietnamese naval personnel on a disputed island last May as proof of growing "camaraderie" between the two nations' military forces.

He said the two countries agreed to increase bilateral trade beyond the end of his term next year. The two countries had previously targeted to grow two-way trade to US$3 billion (S$4.3 billion) by 2016.

A copy of the pact was not made available.

Aquino also said he and Sang had discussed the Philippines' case before a United Nations-backed tribunal questioning the legality of China's sea claims.

Manila hopes it can encourage other nations involved in territorial disputes with Beijing to join their claim at the Hague-based tribunal.

The Philippines and Vietnam both have competing claims with China over the South China Sea, which is believed to sit on top of vast oil and gas reserves.

China claims almost the entire sea, even waters close to its neighbours' coasts, based on ancient maps.

Aside from the Philippines and Vietnam, other claimants to the sea include Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Earlier this month, China and Vietnam sought to cool tensions, pledging to solve their disputes after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hanoi, the first time in 10 years a Chinese premier had made a trip to its southern neighbour.

With the signing of the agreement, Vietnam becomes the Philippines' second strategic partner after Japan, which is sparring separately with China over a chain of islands and rocks in the East China Sea.

The agreement with Vietnam was signed as the United States announced it was ramping up maritime support to its Southeast Asian allies.

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