Viet Nam - Philippines: Strong and deepening ties

Update: 10:00 | 12/07/2021
The last 45 years stood witness to the strong and deepening relations between Viet Nam and the Philippines, underscored by exchanges of high-level visits, robust and enduring political and economic partnerships, as well as strong people-to-people cooperation.

As we weave through the history of diplomacy, we look back 45 years ago when the Philippines and Viet Nam forged diplomatic relations on 12 July 1976 through then Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Carlos P. Romulo and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Phan Hien of Viet Nam. At that time, Vice Minister Hien was actively journeying through Southeast Asia, working for the recognition of the newly unified Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. The Philippines was the fourth ASEAN member to establish diplomatic relations with Viet Nam.

Thủ tướng Nguyễn Xuân Phúc tiếp Đại sứ Philippines Meynardo Los Banos Montealegre tại trụ sở Chính phủ, ngày 17/3/2021.
State President Nguyen Xuan Phuc received Philippine Ambassador to Viet Nam Meynardo Los Banos Montealegre on March 17th, 2021.

Over the years, the two countries became strategic partners, officially entering into an agreement in 2015. The signing of the Joint Statement transpired on 17 November 2015 during the visit of then Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to the Philippines on the occasion of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. To date, Viet Nam is the only Strategic Partner of the Philippines among ASEAN countries and the third after the US and Japan.

The Philippines and Viet Nam continuously strengthen their ties through this Strategic Partnership with both countries currently guided by the five-year Philippines-Viet Nam Plan of Action (POA) that extends from 2019 to 2024. Aimed at comprehensively elevating political, economic and cultural cooperation, the POA has both governments committing to the various cooperation areas including: political; security, defense and law enforcement; trade, investments, and economic; maritime, ocean and fisheries; agriculture and forestry; education; environment and disaster risk reduction-climate change; labor, culture, tourism, sports and people-to-people linkages; information and communications technology; and regional and international cooperation.

The last 45 years stood witness to the strong and deepening relations between Viet Nam and the Philippines, underscored by exchanges of high-level visits, robust and enduring political and economic partnerships, as well as strong people-to-people cooperation. Further strengthening the ties between the two nations are strong coordination and collaboration in various regional and multilateral venues such as in the ASEAN, UN, APEC, ASEM, etc.

POLITICAL AND SECURITY COOPERATION

State visits are highpoints in diplomacy, bolstering bilateral relations and further promoting international cooperation. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Viet Nam has welcomed five Philippine Presidents: President Fidel V. Ramos in 1994; President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in 1998; President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010; President Benigno S. Aquino III in 2010 and current President Rodrigo Roa Duterte in September 2016 and November 2017. These visits highlighted the Philippines’ political cooperation with Viet Nam and represented major milestones in the relations between the two countries.

President Fidel V. Ramos was the first President of the Philippines to visit Viet Nam in March of 1994. His three-day state visit to the country focused on bilateral trade, regional security, and potential areas for technical and scientific cooperation.

President Ramos was also a supporter of Viet Nam’s bid to join ASEAN. Viet Nam signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN in 1993 in Manila and joined the organization in 1995, just a year after President Ramos’ visit.

It was quite fitting then that the next state visit of a Philippine head of state/government occurred during the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit hosted by Viet Nam in 1998. President Joseph Estrada visited Viet Nam at the sidelines of ASEAN with a business delegation looking to increase trade and investment in Viet Nam’s then emerging economy.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had the most visits of a Philippine president to Viet Nam with a state visit in 2002 and participation during ASEM, APEC and ASEAN in 2004, 2006 and 2010, respectively.

President Arroyo’s visits highlighted the need for cooperation in investment and trade and underscored the importance of regional security and cooperation against terrorism. The two countries approved a Framework on Bilateral Cooperation during President Arroyo’s first visit in 2002 which would be further honed into specific action plans.

In 2010, the late President Benigno S. Aquino III chose Viet Nam as his first ever foreign trip. During his state visit, President Aquino signed four MOAs with Viet Nam, namely on Academic Cooperation, Defense Cooperation, Oil Spill Preparedness and Response, and Search and Rescue at Sea.

Vietnamese senior leaders had likewise visited the Philippines on several occasions: Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in September 1978; Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet in February 1992; President Tran Duc Luong in November 2001; Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in January and August 2007; President Truong Tan Sang in October 2011; and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in May 2014. The most recent visit of a senior Vietnamese official was in November 2017 by then Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, now the incumbent President.

Chủ tịch Hội đồng Bộ trưởng Võ Văn Kiệt và Tổng thống Philippines Corazon Aquino tại lễ ký văn kiện hợp tác kinh tế, văn hóa, khoa học kỹ thuậy giữa Việt Nam và Philippines, ngày 27/2/1992.
Vietnam Chairman of the Council of Ministers Vo Van Kiet and Philippine President Corazon Aquino at the signing ceremony of cooperation agreements in the fields of economics, culture, technical science between Viet Nam and the Philippines on February 27th, 1992.

Current Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte has been to Viet Nam twice – a visit in 2016 and participation in APEC in 2017. President Duterte’s state visit in 2016 provided the impetus for the establishment of the Plan of Action 2019-2024 which currently serves as the guide for Philippines - Viet Nam relations.

Amicable discourse furthered diplomatic affairs between the Philippines and Viet Nam with the establishment of a Joint Commission for Bilateral Consultations (JCBC), the Memorandum of Understanding on which was signed in 1994 and continues to serve as the primary medium for dialogue between the two nations.

As the relationship of both countries progressed, so did the JCBC leading to its 9th iteration in Manila in 2019. The next round of discussions has yet to be announced due to complexities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As littoral countries whose coasts are separated by a common sea, both Viet Nam and the Philippines place great importance in maritime concerns. The same waters that our ancestors once used to trade with each other hold even more importance today.

They are used not only, and continually, for trade but also as an important wellspring of resources. As countries with common interests facing common challenges in the South China Sea, Viet Nam and the Philippines have worked together to reach common goals. Maritime cooperation is in fact the anchor of the Strategic Partnership forged between the Philippines and Viet Nam in 2015.

Our cooperation when it comes to maritime matters, especially in the South China Sea, is natural and instinctive for both our peoples. Seafarers, whether traders or fishermen, from both countries have had shared interactions in the South China Sea for several centuries and continue to assist each other even now.

We remember with sincere appreciation the assistance extended by Vietnamese fishermen to Filipinos in June of 2018. Viet Nam has, in fact, rescued many of our fishermen who have been lost at sea, oftentimes bringing them to shore or helping them find their way back to their respective ships.

On the side of the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte himself has tasked the Philippine Coast Guard to treat all Vietnamese fishermen with compassion when they venture too far into Philippine waters.

Tổng thống Philippines Benigno S. Aquino III và Chủ tịch nước Trương Tấn Sang chứng kiến lễ ký kết Kế hoạch hành động Philippines - Việt Nam giai đoạn 2011-2016, tháng 10/2011.
Philippine Benigno S. Aquino III and Vietnam State President Truong Tan Sang witnessed the signing ceremony of the agreement to upgrade the bilateral ties into Strategic Partnership in 2015.

The Philippines greatly appreciates Viet Nam’s stance on the support of peace, stability, security, and freedom of maritime and air navigation in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, especially UNCLOS, as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes.

The Philippines and Viet Nam must continue to strengthen our advocacy for the rule of law and UNCLOS and step-up cooperation in working towards the effective and substantive Code of Conduct (COC) through the relevant ASEAN Mechanisms.

TRADE, INVESTMENT AND ECONOMIC COOPERATION

While the diplomatic relationship between our two countries is young, the relationship of our peoples has been around for hundreds of years, predating even the concept of the Philippines as a country.

Historical records show that merchants from the Southern Philippine Island of Sulu traded regularly with the Cham from Central and Southern Viet Nam. During the 15th century, the major trading port in the Gulf of Tonkin was known to host trading ships from the Philippine island of Luzon until the arrival of Spanish in the Philippines interrupted trade relations.

Trade is an essential part of the relations between our peoples and has always strengthened the ties between the two nations.

Some of the first agreements entered into by both of our countries were along economics and trade matters including the Basic Agreement on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation in 1978, the Trade Agreement also in 1978 and the Agreement on the Promotion and Protection of Investments in 1992.

By the nineties, Philippine business interests in Ho Chi Minh City had grown enough to necessitate the assignment of an Honorary Consul General up to the present.

The past decade has presented the two countries with opportunities that have been marked with significant progress in terms of trade and investment. Some of the notable activities in this regard were the Philippines - Viet Nam Business Forum in October 2011, an exploratory Philippine Outbound Business Mission to Viet Nam in 2012, and the Outbound Construction Business Mission to Viet Nam led by the Philippine Overseas Construction Board (POCB) in September 2015. The most recent pursuit was a Business Mission to Ho Chi Minh City, organized in cooperation with the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT) of Viet Nam in June of 2018.

Philippine business interests have also grown in the country, with a number of major Filipino companies maintaining presence in Viet Nam. The Philippines’ largest fast-food chain, Jollibee, has over one hundred branches throughout Viet Nam and is an investor in domestic brands such as Highlands Coffee and Pho 21.

Gạo là một trong những mặt hàng xuất khẩu chủ chốt của Việt Nam sang thị trường Philippines.
Viet Nam is currently the Philippines’ 12th top trading partner; ranking 12th in terms of export trade and 11th in terms of import suppliers.

Philippine products ranging from various snacks, beverages and canned goods can be found in Vietnamese stores. Philippine companies in Viet Nam are engaged in a wide range of businesses, from food and beverage, to pharmaceuticals, infrastructure projects such as tollways and water treatment facilities.

Some of the noted Philippine companies operating in Viet Nam include Asia Water Network Solutions; Century Pacific Viet Nam Co. Ltd.; Green Cross Viet Nam Co. Ltd.; Manila Water; Philippine Airline; Royal Cargo Viet Nam Co. Ltd.; San Miguel Corporation; United Pharma (Viet Nam) Inc.; URC Viet Nam Co. Ltd.; and Viet Nam Liwayway Joint Stock Co.

Before the pandemic, economic relations between the Philippines and Viet Nam were at its peak with total trade reaching over 4.5 billion USD in 2019. Viet Nam is currently the Philippines’ 12th top trading partner; ranking 12th in terms of export trade and 11th in terms of import suppliers.

A key aspect of our cooperation in Viet Nam is rice trade, accounting for 87% of Philippine rice imports. Even with the recent Rice Tariffication Law enacted in the Philippines, the importation of rice from Viet Nam continues to remain vigorous. It is in this light that Viet Nam remains an important partner of the Philippines’ food security.

PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE CONNECTIONS AND CULTURAL COOPERATION

Given the 45-year relations between the two countries, our people-to-people connection have also intensified. The initial waves of Filipinos in Viet Nam included engineers, hotel and restaurant managers, and garment workers.

English teachers have also started coming in over the past decade. As of 2019, there were over 7,000 Filipinos living and working in Viet Nam. Travel restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may have slowed down this number but we remain optimistic.

Becoming an exceedingly popular tourist destination among Filipinos, Viet Nam has seen arrivals increasing almost every year. In 2019, visitor arrival from the Philippines peaked at 179,190. While the pandemic has put a pause to tourism activities worldwide, this upward trend could most likely pick up where it left off when the world begins to normalize.

Over the past decade, Vietnamese parents have also been sending their children to the Philippines during the summer for English camps. While these exchanges have also temporarily ceased because of the pandemic, we hope that this can lead to more Vietnamese people visiting the Philippines once the pandemic has passed. Such activities are a welcome opportunity for the Vietnamese people to learn more about the Philippines and its people.

On top of tourism and employment, part of the exchanges between the Philippines and Viet Nam was also on the agricultural front. The mountainous provinces of Ha Giang in Viet Nam and Benguet in the Philippines signed a cooperation agreement on 10 November 2017, stating that both provinces will exchange experiences on sustainable tourism development and facilitate export of agro-forestry products, among others.

Du học sinh việt nam tại PLP
A great number of Vietnam students are studying in the Philippines.

Both provinces maintained engagements with each other even during the pandemic as Benguet Governor Melchor Diclas virtually met with Ha Giang Chairman Nguyen Van Son in December 2020, with both provinces sharing best practices on tourism, agriculture, and language training.

Furthermore, a Cultural Cooperation Programme for the period of 2017-2020 was signed in 2016 which had both sides agreeing to cooperate on areas of film, cultural exhibitions, art performances, and cultural heritage.

FUTURE OF PHILIPPINES-VIET NAM RELATIONS

On the 45th Anniversary of our relations, the Republic of the Philippines and the Socialist Republic Viet Nam forged a very promising future ahead. Guided by the Plan of Action 2019-2024, both of our countries can ensure further strengthening and deepening our relations.

In July 2019, on the occasion of the introductory visit of Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro L. Locsin to Viet Nam, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam was signed by the Secretary and then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh.

It was then that both nations agreed to sustain bilateral consultations and exchanges of views on initiatives and issues of mutual interests as regularly as possible. The first meeting of this mechanism is scheduled to occur this year once conditions allow.

As one of the primary anchors of our strategic partnership, maritime cooperation is one of the main areas where we will seek to deepen our relations, especially in terms of security, defense and law enforcement. Among the concrete actions outlined in the POA is practical cooperation and strengthening the sharing of best practices in maritime defense and law enforcement.

There is also much room for cooperation in terms of the protecting the resources in the sea including through concluding an agreement on cooperation against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as well as collaboration in the management of coastal and marine ecosystems.

As the fight against illegal drugs is a priority of Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte and also a concern taken very seriously by the Vietnamese government, both countries look to further collaborate on information exchanges that will help fight the spread of illicit drugs in both our countries.

Exchange of high-level visits between our governments should continue once possible to promote cooperation in different areas. Cabinet-level secretaries from the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Defense had visits to Viet Nam in 2019. This may be currently on hold this time because of the pandemic, but we look forward to the day when these visits recommence to further strengthen our relations.

In terms of investment, trade, and economics, regular consultations on bilateral trade, investments and cooperation through the convening of the Joint Trade Committee would bolster our cooperation even further.

The Philippines and Viet Nam can also further promote and raise awareness on business opportunities in both countries by convening business outreach activities, trade and investment missions in virtual platforms or videoconferencing, pending possible in-person interaction in the days ahead.

There is room for deeper cooperation in terms of education. The Philippines and Viet Nam can further encourage exchanges between higher education institutions from both countries and even facilitate the direct engagement between universities. English language education opportunities can be explored as many of the top universities in the Philippines have English language learning centers.

As both of our countries are deeply rooted in heritage and culture, promoting exchanges of the performing arts, painting and photography delegations can be done once the pandemic is over. Both countries can also further advocate for traditional and contemporary arts through festivals, exhibits and exchanges of artists, researchers and students.

Our first 45 years of diplomatic relations are only the start of what could potentially become an even greater partnership between both of our countries moving forward. As Ambassador of the Philippines to Viet Nam, I look forward to helping set the stage for that possibility over the next 45 years and beyond.

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Meynardo LB. Montealegre

Philippine Ambassador to Viet Nam