The news item about Vietnamese and Filipino soldiers recently engaging in “confidence-building” games on the island called Northwest Cay got me thinking of the many twists and turns in our relations with Vietnam.
Northwest Cay is the international name for what we call Parola Island, which is in the disputed West Philippine Sea. The recent Vietnamese-Filipino joint activity, although involving soldiers, had no military component; instead, the soldiers played football, volleyball, sack race and centipede race. The activity that came close to being “militaristic” was tug-of-war. Yes, I did smile, then laughed out loud, when I read about the soldiers jumping around in sacks.
Northwest Cay is occupied mainly by Filipinos. Last year, there was a similar activity on Southwest Cay, where the Vietnamese are the main occupants. Southwest Cay is about four kilometers from Northwest Cay, and is called Pugad Island by Filipinos.
China condemned the 2014 Vietnamese-Filipino joint activity as a “clumsy farce” and reiterated its claim on the area. So far, there has been no word from China on the 2015 games between Vietnam and the Philippines, but Philippine Navy spokesperson Edgard Arevalo has emphasized that the joint activity was “not intended to pick on China” and was meant to promote “cordial relations” between Vietnam and the Philippines.
Centuries back, during the precolonial period, this whole disputed area was quite busy with ships plying a trading route that involved the Philippines, Vietnam and China. Vietnamese ceramics were in demand in the Philippines, cheaper than the ones from China. Today, we still find parallels with Chinese and Vietnamese ceramics competing with each other in the Philippines.
I am sure that apart from trading, there were other exchanges between Vietnam and the Philippines. The Jesuit historian Ignacio Alcina wrote, in the 17th century, about Visayan households keeping pet pigs—as in pigs being kept inside the house—and I suspect these were probably Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, which are small and cuddly.
Fast forward in time to the unfortunate Vietnam War. Sadly, the post-World War II era was marked by the tensions of the Cold War, described as a struggle between democracy and communism but really more of a superpower struggle, with all kinds of proxy wars fought in different parts of the world.
In 1946, shortly after World War II, Ho Chi Minh sent a telegram to US President Harry Truman requesting the American government to help the Vietnamese people in their struggle against French colonialism. The Americans were suspicious of Ho, seeing him mainly as a communist, and snubbed him.
Ho actually admired American democracy, and the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence incorporated many passages from the US version, including a recognition of the right to happiness.
Ho Chi Minh led Vietnam to victory over the French in 1954, but the country ended up divided into the North, led by Ho, and the South, which became a client state of the Americans, headed by a series of corrupt presidents. Tensions between North and South Vietnam intensified, with the Americans intervening, leading to a long Vietnam War.
The Philippines was involved in Vietnam as early as 1953, when it deployed medical personnel and psychologists through Operation Brotherhood. Yes, Filipinos were involved in psychological warfare.
In 1964, when US President Lyndon Johnson called on nations to join America to fight communism—it was called the “More Flags” campaign—the Philippines was one of five nations that agreed to participate. The Philippines responded by sending a small group of psychologists and civic affairs advisers.
President Diosdado Macapagal was willing to send combat forces but he failed in his quest for reelection and the new president, Ferdinand Marcos, was empathic in his opposition to the deployment of Filipino combat troops. In the end, a Philippine Civic Action Group, Vietnam (Philcag-V) was formed; it deployed some 2,000 engineers, medical personnel and rural development teams, together with noncombat troops. From 1966 to 1969, Philcag-V was present in Tay Ninh, doing counterinsurgency work against the Viet Cong (the National Liberation Front, which were South Vietnamese guerrillas supported by North Vietnam).
Besides Philcag-V, the Philippines played another major role in supporting the United States. This was through the US military bases in Subic and Clark, which provided massive logistical support for the Americans, all the way up to servicing the rest-and-recreation demands of war-weary servicemen.
I remember, too, how Filipino bands (actually rock groups that were called “combos” in the 1970s) were in demand in Saigon during the war.
The cunning Marcos was able to use our participation in Vietnam to bargain with the United States for more military aid to the Philippines.
April 30 marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, a bloody war which the United States lost, with some 58,000 US servicemen killed. The Vietnamese casualties were much higher, with low estimates of 800,000 running up to 3.1 million.
Right after the Vietnam War ended, the Philippines found itself hosting Vietnamese refugees who risked their lives crossing the seas from their homeland into the country. For several years the Vietnamese lived in refugee centers—“boat people,” they were called—in Palawan and in Bataan. Most of the refugees eventually resettled in the United States but a Vietnamese presence can still be found in Puerto Princesa, most visible as pho (noodles) restaurants.
Today, the Philippines has diplomatic relations with Vietnam, with growing investments from larger Filipino multinationals. Filipinos still volunteer to work in Vietnam, but not for counterinsurgency work.
The sports competition between Vietnam and the Philippines on Northwest Cay brings us full circle to ties that date back to the precolonial period.
Learning from history becomes all the more important today with the Edca (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) signed between the United States and the Philippines last year, and a request last April from the United States to have access to eight sites for military exercises: four in Luzon (Subic, Clark, and possibly Laoag and Batanes), two in Cebu and two in west Palawan.
The past is still with us. A lone ship, the Sierra Madre, guards the West Philippine Sea to defend Filipino sovereignty. It is a vintage World War II vessel, all rusted and leaking, that was donated to the Philippines by the Americans, after they used it in Vietnam.
Will we see the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines joining forces in Palawan?
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