US political affairs official to discuss alliance in PHL visit

UNITED STATES Undersecretary for Political Affairs Victoria Jane Nuland will meet with senior Philippine officials during a visit this week to discuss bolstering the alliance between the two nations, according to the US Department of State.

“Under Secretary Nuland will meet with senior Philippine officials to discuss key aspects of the US-Philippines alliance, including our shared interest in deepening economic, security, and people-to-people ties,” the Office of the Spokesperson of the US Department of State said in a  statement posted on March. 4.

“She will also consult with Philippine leaders on the full range of global issues and meet with civil society and young innovators.”

It said the US official will visit the Philippines and Tokyo, Japan from March 6-9.

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has been pursuing stronger ties with the US and has expressed interest in a three-way defense pact with the US and Japan.

Last month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines led to increased US access to more military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Austin said on Feb. 2, whose visit follows one by US Vice President Kamala Harris in November, which included a stop in Palawan, the province closest to the disputed South China Sea.

The Philippines’ efforts to boost ties with Washington amid regional tensions could pave the way for a closer cooperation between Manila and Hanoi in the South China Sea, according to security experts.

“Vietnam has slowly been drifting towards stronger US ties and may definitely upscale this in the future. The expanding US presence in the Philippines will definitely mean more interaction between Manila and Hanoi,” security analyst Karl Gerard See said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

However, he said, “while no doubt helpful, I see Vietnam as playing more of a support role in helping the Philippines curb Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.” 

He added that what is more crucial is a “more concerted effort” by a number of Southeast Asian nations “to temper China’s action.”

The Philippines and Vietnam are among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that claim parts of the South China Sea, which is being claimed by China almost in its entirety.

Vietnam had conducted major expansion activities such as dredging and landfill work at most of its South China Sea outposts in the second half of 2022, according to a December report by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It’s work in the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by six other nations including the Philippines, had created about 170 hectares of new land, the report said, noting that such a scale of work was larger than previous efforts from Vietnam and represented “a major move toward reinforcing its position in the Spratly Islands.”

“I expect Manila will continue the now decade-long tradition of mainly looking to Vietnam as the other main fellow claimant with which it can work, and to outside parties like the US, Australia, and Japan as the key to deterring Chinese aggression,” Gregory “Greg” B. Poling, senior fellow at the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said in an email.

Mr. Poling said all of the southeast Asian claimants publicly push for an ASEAN-centered approach “and in particular regularly voice support for the now quarter-century-old ASEAN-China code of conduct talks to conclude.”

“Even President Marcos has said that repeatedly,” he said. “But unlike the Philippines and Vietnam, for which that is mainly rhetoric, Malaysia might actually believe that a code of conduct is possible.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar bin Ibrahim visited Manila from March 1 to 2, during which he urged Mr. Marcos to involve the ASEAN in resolving the Philippines’ sea dispute with China.

Mr. Poling said Malaysia’s government has historically downplayed the disputes in favor of closer ties with Beijing. “Whether the new Malaysian government under Anwar will toughen Kuala Lumpur’s stance is still unclear.”

The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia hold different but  in some cases overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea’s land features.

As in the case of the Philippines, China is also Vietnam’s largest trade partner, with Hanoi heavily relying on Beijing for the materials and equipment needed by its manufacturing sector.

Despite their relatively stable relations, Hanoi has been standing up to China’s aggression in the disputed waterway. In 2014, the two countries had quarreled over Beijing’s move to move its oil platform to waters near the disputed Paracel Islands.

Raymond Powell, a fellow at the Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said Vietnam is likely appreciative of the Philippine Coast Guard’s new maritime transparency “as it is always happy for the world to take notice of China’s maritime aggression.”

“However, any open support from Hanoi is likely to be subdued and measured,” he said in an email.

Mr. Powell worked in the US Embassy in Hanoi from 2013 to 2016 as the US Air Force Attaché.   

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the US-Vietnam relationship has been on an upward trajectory, with their bilateral trade growing “over 200-fold since normalization.”

Efforts to resolve legacies of the Vietnam war as well as “shared threat perceptions” regarding China have greatly contributed to their improving ties, it said in a 2014 report.

“Vietnam makes much of its independent foreign policy, which includes an ironclad commitment not to join any one country or bloc against another,” Mr. Powell said. “So while Vietnam’s government internally considers China its top security threat, its external statements and actions remain restrained unless its own interests are directly threatened.” — John Victor D. Ordoñez and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza