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The lie-low but dangerous claimant in the South China Sea

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First of 3 parts

PRESIDENT Marcos Jr.’ s report on Saturday that he wants to set talks between the Philippines and Vietnam over Vietnamese vessels’ “incursions” into the country’s exclusive economic zone was vastly under-reported. This is because Vietnam as an aggressive claimant of the Spratly Islands (Kalayaan to us), which it considers as its sovereign territory, doesn’t hew to US propagandists’ and their minions’ false narrative that the disputes in the South China Sea are essentially because of China’s “expansionism.”

Most commentators on the South China Sea have written not a single thing about Vietnam’s claim over our Kalayaan Island Group, even as the Vietnamese occupy the most number of features there, 29, compared to the Philippines’ 10, and China’s eight. The Vietnamese have erected heavily armed outposts on converted oil rigs and built military garrisons in many of the features they occupy. Several of these are so armed for war that there are tanks, reportedly, mid-range missiles — and amphibious landing armored vehicles in case they decide to grab a weakly armed Philippine islet. Vietnam has also reclaimed 220 hectares of land to transform several reefs it controls into artificial islands, although on a much smaller scale than what the Chinese did, which was 1,295 hectares.

So that more Filipinos will be better informed about the South China Sea disputes, I’m posting in my column, in three parts, the chapter on Vietnam from my book “Debacle: The Aquino regime’s Scarborough fiasco and the South China Sea arbitration deception.”*

Excerpt from the book

Vietnam’s longstanding claim that the Spratlys is its sovereign territory is incontrovertible proof that the purported “overwhelming victory” of the Philippines in its arbitration case against China is a total sham.

If, for argument’s sake, the arbitral panel did rule as illegal China’s sovereignty in the Spratlys and ordered it to vacate the seven reefs it occupies, the Philippines still won’t be able to get those reefs. It will have to contend with a fiercer claimant that many Filipinos do not get to hear about: Vietnam.

Vietnam claims as much of the Spratlys as China does and, with equal nationalist fervor. But because of the overwhelming media propaganda against China as the “bully” in the Spratlys, very little is known about Vietnam’s own strong claims.

If ever China leaves the Spratlys, Vietnam is certain to rush in. When Ferdinand E. Marcos’ troops started occupying the Spratlys in the 1970s, China and Vietnam vehemently protested. But it was solely Vietnam which matched its words with action: It sent troops to occupy 10 features in the Spratly archipelago from the 1970s, 13 in the 1980s, and six in the 1990s.

China, often portrayed as the aggressor in the SCS by local and international media, has only seven reefs while the Philippines controls eight islands (or islets) and one reef. Vietnam claims the entire Spratlys archipelago and the Paracel Islands as part of its sovereign territory. However, Vietnam lost the Paracels to the Chinese in 1974 after a bloody battle that left many Vietnamese soldiers dead.


The likes of anti-China propagandists Antonio Carpio and the late foreign secretary Albert del Rosario practically never talked about Vietnam as a crucial player in the SCS dispute. The Aquino regime was even protective of Vietnam, being careful not to involve them in the arbitration case, not even to question Hanoi’s claims of sovereignty over the SCS.

As the Aquino regime formally informed the arbitral panel: “The determination of the nature and entitlements of the features in question does not require the tribunal to pass judgment on the lawfulness of any of Vietnam’s actions or claims; nor would Vietnam be bound by the tribunal’s interpretation or application of the Convention. It is therefore not an indispensable third party.”

In their hundreds of press interviews and lectures, Carpio and del Rosario never discussed Vietnam as having been the most aggressive nation in the Spratlys.

This pro-Vietnam stance harms Philippine interests. By portraying China as the aggressive state they have practically given a free pass to Vietnam, while weakening the Philippines’ position on the dispute.

Carpio’s 2017 e-book devoted to portraying China as an Evil Empire intent on grabbing all of the Spratlys had 60,000 words and a hundred maps. It had just 48 words mentioning Vietnam as a claimant in the area.

Carpio and del Rosario practically hid from Filipinos’ consciousness Vietnam’s presence and claims in the Spratlys since these lay bare the colossal hoax they have foisted on the nation:

What’s the use of the arbitration against China when Vietnam also claims what China claims? Is it to clear the way for Vietnam, which has a strong historical claim as affirmed by many experts, unlike the Philippines whose claim began only during the Marcos era?

Using deft propaganda, the US and its minions here have fooled Filipinos into thinking that China is the only nation claiming “what is ours” in the Spratlys. But they conveniently ignore the fact that Vietnam is also claiming “what is ours” — not just the islands and islets in the Kalayaan Island Group, but the entire Spratlys archipelago.

Carpio and del Rosario’s propaganda line is that the arbitration suit was intended to get a ruling by an “international body” invalidating China’s claims in the Spratlys, so the Philippines could have these. If this is so, and if Carpio and del Rosario really wanted to protect the Philippines’ claims, why haven’t they proposed a similar case against Vietnam?


The deception has been so pervasive that when Chinese fishing vessels sought refuge during a storm in the Union Banks area in April 2021, the defense department issued angry press releases demanding that the Chinese “leave our sovereign territories.” China has two outposts in that area, but Vietnam controls it with four fortifications, and the satellite photos could not determine whether these were Chinese or Vietnamese vessels. The Philippines never had an outpost there.

Vietnam could be the more dangerous claimant in the South China Sea, obscured by the overarching propaganda by the Yellow bloc against China. Yet Vietnam, a fiercely nationalistic socialist nation that is unafraid to take on bigger countries such as the US (Vietnam War) and China, could even be the more serious threat to the Philippine holdings in the Spratlys.

There is, in fact, a precedent for Vietnam’s treachery and aggression. In 1975, the Vietnamese grabbed Philippine territory that Marcos’ troops had been occupying.

It was a “friendly ruse,” said a US study, but the deception had grave implications for the Philippines and was long a source of distrust between the Philippines and Vietnam such that the two sides have tried patching things up with social interactions such as volleyball games between their troops.

In 1971, President Ferdinand E. Marcos ordered the Philippine military to occupy Northeast Cay and Southwest Cay, two adjacent coral reefs in the Spratlys, which he named Parola and Pugad islands, respectively.


In 1975, however, Vietnam undertook a bold but traitorous scheme to grab Pugad island from the Philippines. The Vietnamese detachment in a nearby island offered to host the birthday party of the Filipino troops’ commanding officer in Parola island. They reportedly even let it be known that they would be bringing in dancers (other reports said prostitutes) from Saigon as entertainment for the partygoers.

The Filipino troops couldn’t resist the temptation and they all left Pugad Island for the party. No one was left to guard the island.

The Filipinos trusted the Vietnamese since, after all, the Philippines helped their country in its war against the communist North, sending at its peak 2,000 doctors, nurses, as well as enlisted men and officers, called the Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam.

When Marcos’ troops returned to Pugad the next day after a night of revelry, they found the Vietnamese in trenches along the shores, pointing their machine guns at them, and ordering them to leave immediately. Vietnam during the night had brought in a battalion of troops to secure Pugad and claim it. It has held the island since then, building on it a huge facility.

Pugad is the fourth biggest islet in the Spratlys. By comparison, the China-occupied Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal that are invoked as examples of the superpower’s expansionism are features above water only at low tide. Although the Philippines had claimed Mischief as part of its KIG in 1978, it had never actually occupied it.

Southwest Cay

From the point of view of Vietnam, it grabbed Southwest Cay because of its firm belief that the entire Spratly archipelago, and not just the islets such as Pugad, is their territory. Just like China, Vietnam has consistently cited historical events and documents to prove its claim of ownership in the Spratlys.

Knowing this history and the fact that Vietnam has a strong claim to the Spratlys, then what was the arbitration case against China for?

One aim was to create a narrative that the arbitration panel ruled that China had no valid maritime claim in the Spratlys, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), therefore it had no business to be claiming anything. Conveniently ignored though was China’s claim that the entire Spratlys is an archipelago it had established sovereignty over decades and even a century ago, just as Vietnam does.

Neither China’s nor Vietnam’s claims have been invalidated. That is the reality, and to believe that the Philippines will somehow regain “what is ours” is a delusion. The only way out of this dangerous dispute is to negotiate a compromise deal.

*Available at amazon.com paperback and Kindle e-book, and at all Fully Booked branches.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    US demonizes China because they cannot do the same to Vietnam who put them to international shame from the very start. In both cases, the Philippines has always been a willing accomplice but in the end gets nothing but alms suited for beggars.

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