Vietnam. Philippines. Friends.
Based on the compelling — and harrowing — accounts of our fishermen, the boat-sinking incident near Recto Bank is a clear violation of international norms and basic human decency, if only for the fact that they were abandoned in open sea by the Chinese fishing vessel that hit their boat. “I thought they were going to help us, but they abandoned us instead,” lamented boat captain Junel Insigne.
Alas, he could very well have been referring to our government officials, including Rodrigo Duterte, who have been reticent at best in their response.
Beyond the disheartening details of the incident, however, there is at least one positive thing we can take away from it: the fact that the Vietnamese crew of a nearby vessel went the extra nautical mile and aided our fishermen, rescuing and giving them food. “They allowed us on their vessel. They fed us, let us rest, gave us water. They are the ones who helped us,” Insigne recounted. The men from two countries couldn’t understand each other, but three words were mutually intelligible: “Vietnam. Philippines. Friends.”
These three words may simply be an expression of duty and gratitude; of a camaraderie shared by seafarers around the world. But there is a deeper significance to the friendship between Vietnam and the Philippines, and it is one worth reflecting upon, as our ship of state wades through tempestuous waters.
In the first place, the two countries (which, incidentally, have similar land areas and comparable population sizes) share a long, albeit underdocumented history—from precolonial trading and migration routes to a postcolonial relationship structured by the Cold War and the emergence of Asean regionalism. Beyond nation-to-nation dealings, it must be noted that fisherfolk of both countries have been interacting at sea for centuries without thinking that it can be exclusively owned by nations.
It is also worth mentioning that the Philippines opened its shores to Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Vietnam War; over 2,000 of them found a home in Palawan, leaving a legacy in the chaolong restaurants in Puerto Princesa and likely in many other unexplored ways.
Today, Vietnam figures in the Filipino imagination as the nation that seems to have overtaken us in terms of development — or is about to. Although in terms of GDP and per capita income we are still nominally ahead, Vietnam’s economic growth has been more consistent since the 1990s, and its total exports today are four times greater than that of the Philippines, while its unemployment and poverty rates are significantly lower.
I was in Hanoi a few months ago and, in between tastings of pho bo and discussions of public health, the people I met gave four reasons for Vietnam’s rapid economic growth: first, agrarian reform (which saw Vietnam becoming a net exporter of rice—even to the Philippines); second, investing in human capital (e.g. quality education); third, investing in physical and digital infrastructure; and, finally, ease of doing business, which allowed Vietnam to attract a lot of foreign investments.
My Vietnamese colleagues were quick to say that their country is far from perfect: There is too little press freedom, too much corruption and growing inequality. Urban planning has not come apace with urbanization, manifesting in the motorcycle mayhem in Nguyen Trai and many other of Hanoi’s roads. Even so, the Philippines can learn development lessons from its western neighbor.
For many Filipinos, Vietnam also signifies courage, having defeated the United States in the Vietnam War and having stood up to China much more vigorously than our government has. Three months ago, it experienced a similar boat-sinking incident — also involving a Chinese vessel — and its foreign ministry promptly lodged an official protest. Contrary to the Duterte administration’s defeatist statements, such diplomatic action did not lead to war.
Given our shared security interests, we will do well to forge stronger ties with Vietnam, as well as other Asean neighbors who, colonial divergences notwithstanding, we should consider as natural allies in an increasingly multipolar world.
But I hope we also realize that we have much more in common than a disputed sea.
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