Vietnam and the Philippines are exploring the possibility of joint exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea in bilateral discussions this week, Reuters reports.

The article cites a senior military official as saying that Hanoi and Manila – the two more forward-leaning of the four Southeast Asian South China Sea claimants – are set to have “initial discussions” about this, though these “may take time” to concretize. The report comes as Vietnam’s vice defense minister, Nguyen Chi Vinh, and the Philippines’ undersecretary of defense, Honorio Azcueta, met Wednesday for the first ever Vietnam-Philippines defense policy dialogue held in Hanoi.

The story itself is nothing new, broadly speaking. Such discussions are the product of a growing bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the Philippines, which elevated their ties to the level of a strategic partnership last year (See: “Vietnam, Philippines Near New Strategic Partnership”). Though I’ve tirelessly pointed out that the South China Sea is only one of several issues under this strategic partnership, it has certainly been a key driver in the development of stronger defense ties.

More specifically, discussions about joint patrols and other collective engagements in South China Sea have been going on privately for a while now, among Hanoi and Manila as well as others (See: “US-Japan Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?”). For instance, as I noted in a previous piece, the Philippines has privately broached the possibility of joint freedom of navigation patrols with the United States in bilateral discussions (See: “Why the Philippines is Critical to the US Rebalance to Asia”). Yet at the recent U.S.-Philippine Bilateral Security Dialogue in March, when The Diplomat asked U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg whether this would take place, he refused to say anything more beyond the fact that the United States usually comments about these operations after they occur, not before (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”).

As is the case with joint patrols between the Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, the key question is when we will see words translate into actions. With growing concerns about Chinese militarization in the South China Sea and a verdict looming on Manila’s South China Sea case against Beijing with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, these patrols between various actors could occur a lot sooner than might otherwise be the case (See: “Does the Philippines’ Case Against China Really Matter?”).

At this week’s defense policy dialogue, Azcueta and Vinh agreed to intensify defense ties in various dimensions – including exchanges, mechanisms, dialogues and cooperation in the naval domain with issues ranging from anti-piracy to search and rescue. Unsurprisingly, joint patrols were not publicly listed as an area of future cooperation.

By PRASHANTH PARAMESWARAN Apr. 14, 2016 on The Diplomat

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