In what was the first ever port call between the countries, two Vietnamese frigates visited the Philippines on Tuesday. An unnamed Filipino naval officer said the two countries would hold peaceful joint patrols and operations in the Spratlys.
But the timing of the maiden port call was clear. It coincides with the first anniversary of China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Ever since, Southeast Asian states have worried about Beijing’s intentions for its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The year seems to have only drawn us closer to a major incident, miscalculation or serious conflict in the South China Sea.
Yet there is little unity from the ASEAN bloc, despite much discussion. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in May managed a joint communiqué expressing ‘serious concerns’ (the adjective was added at Vietnam’s insistence and only after much debate). The November ASEAN Summit statement managed to declare that ‘we remain concerned’, with a further affirmation of ‘the importance of maintaining peace and stability’ including the ‘freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea’. A leaked pre-Summit draft document cited progress on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, but with no firm agreement on the decade-long process of negotiation.