Vietnam, Philippines in talks on disputed Spratly Islands amid China’s shadow 

Vietnam expressed willingness to talk with the Philippines and discuss mutually beneficial measures after Manila filed a claim that is expected to affect Vietnam’s claim on all of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Hanoi’s foreign ministry announced June 21.

The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds, and potentially by gas and oil deposits. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim the islands in their entirety, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines.

“Vietnam once again affirms its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos in accordance with international law,” foreign ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang said in a statement on its website.

The Hoang Sa archipelago is off the Gulf of Bac Bo (Tonkin}, about 120 nautical miles from Da Nang, known internationally as Paracel Islands. The Truong Sa archipelago lies scattered in the south of the Eastern Sca, 250 nautical miles from Cam Ranh Bay, known internationally as Spratly Islands.

The Philippines has no claims on the Paracel Islands, while Vietnam’s claims in the Spratlys are mainly in the western part of the archipelago, outside of the Philippine claim.

“Coastal states, when submitting their outer continental shelf boundaries, need to respect the legitimate rights and interests of other relevant coastal states with opposite or adjacent coastlines,” Hang said in the statement.

The Philippines filed on June 15 a notice with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, seeking an extended continental shelf (ECS) in the South China Sea that would affirm its exclusive economic zone.

Converging interests

Diplomats in both countries are nurturing an emerging “strategic convergence” of interests, particularly in the South China Sea. In January, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made a state visit to Hanoi where both countries signed two maritime cooperation agreements: one on coast guard cooperation and another on a future bilateral code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Both countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been pushing for a multilateral code of conduct in the South China Sea which China has refused to move forward.

Moreover, trade between the two countries has increased significantly through the years and they have also agreed on a five-year trade commitment on food security.

Second filing

As to the UN filing, it was the second time the Philippines sought an extension of its continental shelf after the UN granted in 2012 a similar claim to declare the undisputed Philippine Rise, also known as the Benham Rise, off the Philippines’ eastern seaboard, as part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf.

The Benham claim was part of a longer effort to define the Philippine archipelagic baseline, particularly in the Celebes Sea, which was settled with Indonesia without rancor or hostility.

In filing the latest claim in New York, Assistant Foreign Secretary Marshall Louis Alferez said Manila was claiming an entitlement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to establish the outer limits of its continental shelf, comprising the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas up to 350 nautical miles.

The submission followed a comprehensive technical and scientific study of continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea, referring to a part of South China Sea within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, the Philippine foreign office said.

Expectedly, China opposed the extended continental shelf.

“The Philippines unilaterally submitted a case regarding the delimitation of the outer continental shelf in the South China Sea, infringing upon China’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” the state-controlled Global Times quoted China’s Foreign Ministry.

The ministry statement added that the action violates international law, including the UNCLOS, and contravenes relevant provisions of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Growing Sinophobia

Meanwhile, China’s increasing hostility due to the maritime disputes has contributed to growing Sinophobia in the Philippines, a burden that is now being borne by the country’s sizeable ethnic Chinese community — estimated to number from 700,000 to more than one million Filipino citizens with an undetermined number of non-citizens.

While it is still a long way from the levels of racism in Malaysia and Singapore that resulted in riots in 1964 and 1969, the Filipino-Chinese community has publicly expressed alarm.

The influential Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII) on June 20 entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) on the proper prosecution and eventual deportation of Chinese nationals who violated Philippine law.

Under the agreement, DOJ committed to strictly follow legal procedures in prosecuting Chinese nationals suspected of criminal activity. The federation, in turn, agreed to provide the appropriate air transport to repatriate Chinese individuals whom the DOJ has determined to be deportable.

Justice Undersecretary Jesse Hermogenes Andres said the agreement was a game-changer in easing overcrowded immigration detention centers and expediting the removal of undesirable aliens. But, underlying the agreement was a growing anti-Chinese sentiment arising from the growing number of criminal incidents where Chinese nationals were found to have been involved.

Entrepreneur Cecilio Pedro, the FFCCCII president, decried “unjust” and negative statements made by politicians regarding the presence of Chinese students in the Philippines’ Cagayan province, more than 500 kilometers from Manila. 

“We unequivocally denounce the unjust criticism directed towards Chinese students who have come to the Philippines to enhance their English proficiency. It is disheartening to witness such unwarranted attacks, particularly when our ASEAN neighbors, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, host significantly larger numbers of Chinese students,” Pedro said in an earlier statement.

Illegal activities

Accusations of espionage against the Chinese students in Cagayan emerged amid questions on the citizenship of an official in another province, Tarlac. The official, who calls herself Alice Guo, was found to have abetted the operation of a Chinese gaming hub in Bamban, Tarlac, that is suspected to have facilitated the illegal entry of Chinese nationals.

However, Guo, who was elected mayor of Bamban in 2022, could not prove Filipino citizenship, a prerequisite for public office and ownership of land in the Philippines.

On June 21, the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) said it was preparing human trafficking charges against Guo and 12 other Chinese nationals who held positions at the Baofu Corporation, Hongsheng Gaming Technology and Zun Yuan Technology.

Former Filipino official Dennis Cunanan was also among those named by the DOJ. Also included in the charges were Guo’s alleged business partner, Huang Zhiyang, who is a fugitive in China, and Zhang Ruijin and Lin Baoying, who are both embroiled in a multibillion-dollar money laundering case in Singapore.

Photo credit: iStock/ thaslam

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