In Lieu of a Binding Code in the South China Sea, a VFA for ASEAN

By Rene P. Acosta

Philippine Navy frigate Gregorio Del Pilar steams in formation during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Philippines 2013. Source: U.S. Navy photo, U.S. Government Work.

Philippine Navy frigate Gregorio Del Pilar steams in formation during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Philippines 2013. Source: U.S. Navy photo, U.S. Government Work.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on June 24 disclosed that the Philippines is in discussions with Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia on crafting a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which it hopes will eventually be signed with each of the individual states. Manila entering into joint security cooperation and training with three of its neighbors in Southeast Asia should be seen as a part of the collective and tactical effort to fend off China’s aggression in the South China Sea. The VFA would allow Philippine forces to train together with those of Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia in joint maneuvers and military drills, and as such, would permit the temporary basing of ASEAN troops in the Philippines.

Like the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia are South China Sea claimants, along with China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. That Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia are even considering a VFA with the Philippines demonstrates their collective, serious concern with China’s behavior. If eventually sealed, the VFA would be the first within ASEAN. It is ironic that squabbling neighbors such as Malaysia and the Philippines, who have had military conflicts of their own in recent years over Malaysia’s Sabah State, are compelled to consider cooperation over the South China Sea.

China’s activities has moved them closer together even though the affected ASEAN members have different contending claims. On the other hand, Indonesia, which joined Australia in protesting China’s unannounced naval exercise in their waters in February 2014 and has been consistently moving for the adoption of a binding code of conduct by ASEAN, is alarmed by China’s deliberate effort to control the South China Sea by force.

The Philippines already has existing VFAs with Australia and the United States, and is in the initial stage of hammering out a similar agreement with Japan, which is a key ally.

Gazmin said the Philippine military is lagging behind its neighbors in the area of modernization and it is only through VFAs that it can catch up by enriching the knowledge of Filipino soldiers regarding new equipment and technology.

The defense chief may be correct in offering a technology sharing justification behind the proposed agreement, but it is a transparent argument. Especially when observers know that ASEAN is contending against China’s efforts to isolate the South China Sea and its access from Southeast Asia.

Only last week, Gazmin specifically called China a threat, given its activities in the disputed South China Sea, especially through its breakneck island building activity, which has already alarmed Japan, the United States, and the other Group of Seven countries, the United Nations, and especially China’s Southeast Asian neighbors.

Over the past months, the players behind the proposed VFA, save for Brunei, have been vocal in urging China to refrain from militarizing the South China Sea, not only because of the threat it poses to regional security, but because they have experienced themselves China’s deliberate incursions into their territories.

During the recent ASEAN Summit hosted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian authorities urged China to work to secure the trust and confidence of Southeast Asia, rather than fan discord through its reclamation activities, which Malaysia said has destabilized peace, security, and stability in the region.

ASEAN has moved sluggishly toward a code of conduct that will govern norms and conduct in the South China Sea, with the Philippines as the principal mover, to no avail. Manila has been bamboozled by Beijing through its influence on other members of the regional body, particularly Cambodia and Laos.

Despite international pressure, Chinese authorities have prevailed in blocking the adoption of the code, which could prevent the South China Sea from being an imminent flashpoint, by saying China could only negotiate with the individual claimant countries and not with ASEAN as a bloc.

If ASEAN cannot hammer out a governing code, then it is high time that Southeast Asia or its affected states come up with an alternative security agreement that could at least shield them from China’s threats and intimidation, and in the bigger picture, prevent the South China Sea issue from spinning out of control.

Mr. Rene P. Acosta is a journalist based in Manila where he covers defense and national security issues. He was formerly the president of the Defense Press Corps of the Philippines.


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