It is easy for a serviceman stationed on one of the tiny islands that comprise the Spratly group in the South China Sea to feel lonely. But sometime in early June, the Philippines hopes to send 40 of its naval personnel to visit their Vietnamese counterparts on Southwest Cay for a day of beach volleyball, food, and music. Even so, the history that the two sides share over the island was not so amiable. South Vietnam slyly seized the island from the Philippines in 1975 and then communist Vietnamese forces replaced those of South Vietnam, after Saigon fell. An impasse has existed ever since.
While intermural events between island garrisons are not new, they have become scarce over the last decade or more. With Chinese naval and coast guard patrols on the rise, tensions have increased across the South China Sea. And so if the event on Southwest Cay occurs, it would carry with it some significance as a signal that the Philippines and Vietnam, two of the six countries that contest parts of the South China Sea, may have warmed to the notion of greater cooperation in the region.
In recent years, China has become more assertive, particularly against Philippine claims. Notably, it blocked Philippine access to Scarborough Shoal in a months-long standoff in 2012. And, in March 2014, China mounted a quasi-maritime blockade around Second Thomas Shoal (which China calls Ren’ai and the Philippines calls Ayungin), preventing the Philippines from resupplying its small garrison there aboard a grounded landing ship, tank (LST). Eventually, the Philippines air dropped supplies to its contingent of marines.
Vietnam has also experienced Chinese harassment. Over the last few years, Chinese patrol boats have repeatedly interfered with Vietnamese exploration vessels operating in the South China Sea, cutting their towed cables from time to time. As a result, Vietnam has heavily invested in beefing up its navy, spending about $3 billion (equivalent to almost its entire 2011 defense budget) on six new Kilo-class submarines and four new Gephard-class frigates to help defend its waters.
With Manila seemingly serious about its own military buildup for the first time in decades, Vietnam may have begun to see the Philippines as a credible partner in the dispute in the South China Sea. If nothing else, Vietnam knows that the event would irritate China, which has tried to divide its adversaries in the dispute and deal with them bilaterally. For the Philippines, which has borne the brunt of Chinese ire over the last half decade alone, the event would be a step in the right direction for its efforts to encourage Southeast Asian cooperation.
Of course, Philippine hopes for cooperation extend further than an island sporting event. In September 2012, Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin revealed plans for “tripartite patrols” across a swath of ocean from the southern Spratly Islands to the Celebes Sea. The patrols would involve naval forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. He hoped that the three countries could expand their existing cooperative agreements in order to better coordinate their maritime patrols and, thus, enhance their collective situational awareness in the region. (Clearly there is much room for improvement, given that in February 2013 nearly 200 gunmen from the Philippines, under the banner of the Sultanate of Sulu, sailed across the area and occupied a Malaysian town for three weeks.)
In 2012, the Philippines and Vietnam also mooted the possibility of holding joint naval exercises near Southwest Cay. Later this year, naval officials from the Philippines and Vietnam will visit each other’s capitals to discuss further naval cooperation in the region. Collaboration around situational awareness is likely to be on the agenda. For the Philippines, its efforts will be aided by an integrated coastal monitoring radar system that it recently received from the United States. Since then, it has worked with the U.S. Navy to bring it into full operational use, testing it during their joint Coast Watch South Capability Exercise.
Nonetheless, just how much cooperation can be expected to develop among Southeast Asian countries remains unclear. They still harbor reservations about one another. Even the effort to establish “tripartite patrols” was limited—aimed at coordinating naval activities, rather than mounting joint patrols. Yet, they have all gradually come to see that the stronger China has become, the less willing it has been to negotiate. Even Malaysia, which has been the most willing to give China the benefit of the doubt, has edged closer to the Philippine view. As early as 2010, Malaysian officials began to express their concerns. Then, in March 2013, the Chinese navy held an amphibious exercise in the waters off James Shoal, a Malaysian-claimed island; Kuala Lumpur responded with a rare protest to China. By late that year, Malaysia announced that it would establish a marine corps and build a new naval base in Sarawak, near the disputed shoal. But to little avail, China sent another three warships to the island in February 2014. Meanwhile, the Philippines continues to do what it can do alone. That has included strengthening its alliance with the United States and bringing its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
For the moment, beach volleyball on Southwest Cay merely means an opportunity for Philippine and Vietnamese personnel posted in the Spratly Islands to take a break from their daily duties. But it would be better for them if their governments could start looking at each other as something other than rivals in the South China Sea. Then, perhaps life among the Spratly Islands may truly become a little bit less lonely.
 Manuel Mogato and Greg Torode, “Philippine, Vietnamese navies to unite against China over beers and volleyball,” Reuters, Apr. 10, 2014.
 Stuart Grudgings, “Insight – China’s assertiveness hardens Malaysian stance in sea dispute,” Reuters, Feb. 26, 2014; Dzirhan Mahadzir, “Malaysia to establish marine corps, naval base close to James Shoal,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 16, 2013.