It was a friendly game of beach volleyball, complete with beers and a side-game of soccer. But Sunday’s match between Vietnamese and Filipino troops on a small island in the South China Sea could have Beijing concerned about the future of its territorial claims in the region.
The Spratly Islands are a small chain of islands that are in and of themselves barely inhabitable mounds of dirt, floating in the South China Sea. What has the countries surrounding the islands intensely interested in their fate, however, is the estimated stores of minerals and energy-wealth under the ocean floor surrounding them. Whoever has ownership of the islands will vastly alter the boundaries of their Exclusive Economic Zone which grants them the rights to harvest any materials found beneath the water.
This has led to not only China, the Philippines, and Vietnam laying claim to them, but also Taiwan and Malaysia as well. In Sunday’s set of games, however, the Philippines and Vietnam at least are hoping to show their much larger neighbor that they stand united against Beijing’s unilateral claims, a potentially worrying development for China. In addition to playing soccer and volleyball, the 40 Filipino sailors who joined their Vietnamese counterparts on Southwest Cay “held a tug-of-war competition, put on cultural shows involving singing and dancing and shared food and beer,” Philippine naval spokesman, Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Fabic told Reuters.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however, as the two sides also shared information on maritime security, natural disaster warnings, and search and rescue operations. Given that Vietnam only has control over the Southwest due to wresting control of it from the Philippines back in 1975 shows how far the two are willing to go to show opposition to what Vietnamese naval official Col. Le Xuan Thuy called the “unruly actions of China seriously violating international laws.”
China is already trying to spike the idea that Beijing’s claim over the Spratly Islands are in doubt. “Don’t you think this small move together by Vietnam and the Philippines is at most a clumsy farce?” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday. “China has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and the seas nearby.”
“We demand that Vietnam and the Philippines stop any behavior that picks quarrels and causes trouble … and not do anything to complicate or magnify the dispute,” Hua continued. Last month, however, China began construction in the on the Islands’ Jonson South Reef, refusing to comment on what exactly it was building and dismissing the Philippine’s protests. The move from China comes in spite of a 2002 non-binding agreement between China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) declaring that all parties would avoid provocations in the region.
The Filipino-Vietnamese games also are occurring in the shadow of increased tensions between China and Vietnam over the deployment of a Chinese oil rig into another set of disputed islands near the Vietnamese coast. China on Sunday accused Vietnamese ships of “ramming the Chinese government ships for a total of 1,416 times” in an attempt to break the cordon that China has placed around the islands. “China wants good relations with Vietnam, but there are principles that China cannot abandon,” the statement from the Foreign Ministry reads. “The channel of communication between China and Vietnam is open,” it continued, urging that Vietnam withdraw its ships from the oil rig’s site.
China continues to declare its sovereignty over several disputed areas in what has been seen as a stand-in for a bid for regional dominance. Beijing is also quarreling with Japan over the fate of the islands in the East China Sea called the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. Several countries, including the Philippines, have tried to draw China into talks at the Law of the Sea Tribunal in the Hague over the issue, but so far China has refused those calls. “We do think that this specific tribunal request is a good opportunity for China to clarify the legal basis for I think what we would call the ambiguous nature of its maritime claims in the South China Sea and to align those claims with international law,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said last week of the push to take China to international court. “So we hope they will avail themselves of this opportunity.”
Despite the United States urging unity among China’s neighbors in the face of an increased view of its territory, so far the results have been underwhelming as regional bickering — such as in the case of Japan and South Korea — has undermined the cause. So while the legal efforts appear to be stalled, Vietnam and the Philippines’ cooperation, even as they both maintain their claims to the islands, can be taken as a show of unity against China. And it won’t be a one-time meet-up over the net. According to officials in the Philippines, the event will take place again next year.