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Seen fishing on Panatag, Vietnam gains from Philippines' arbitral win

Maritime hotspots in Asia, among which is the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, off Zambales. AMTI/CSIS, file

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 12:06 p.m.) — Vietnamese fishing vessels have reportedly been seen moored at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, inserting Hanoi into the post-ruling narrative of the South China Sea dispute.

On July 12, 2016, the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal based in the Hague issued its ruling on the Philippines' complaint against China's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea. In its ruling, the tribunal recognized the Scarborough Shoal as a traditional fishing ground of neighbors the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The Duterte administration, however, has decided to set aside the ruling and sought to rebuild its relationship with Beijing.

In a Twitter post, Ryan Martinson, assistant professor at China Maritime Studies Institute, noted that a number of Vietnamese fishing and law enforcement vessels were present near the Panatag Shoal.

Leaning on Hague ruling

Euan Graham, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, said that Vietnam serves to keep the Hague award alive by internationalizing the issue.

"Manila recently announced a bilateral coordination mechanism on the South China Sea, with Beijing, due to commence in May. This may have raised Vietnam’s diplomatic concerns," Graham said in his article title "What is Vietnam's fishing flotilla doing at Scarborough Shoal?"

Vietnam, having one of the region's biggest fleets, might be putting fishing rights deliberately to the test at the shoal for other reasons.

"Vietnam stands to gain considerably from the Philippines’ arbitration verdict, especially its consummate rejection of China’s dashed-line claims, which intrude far into Vietnam’s EEZ," Graham said.

The arbitral tribunal's recognition of multi-nation fishing rights at Panatag Shoal gives Vietnam an "in" to help implement the ruling, the analyst said.

Implications for Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has reasons not to welcome Hanoi's intervention as it would broaden the dispute between Manila and Beijing when the former's priority is rapprochement.

The presence of Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels in the area could be interpreted as reviving a latent claim to the shoal's sovereignty.

Graham, however, noted that Vietnam likely consulted with the Philippines in advance.

"Duterte reaffirmed the strategic partnership on his visit to Hanoi last September, including a strongly worded joint statement upholding 'freedom of navigation and overflight as well as unimpeded commerce in the region, particularly in the South China Sea,'" Graham said.

The supposed coordination between the Philippines and Vietnam speaks to a growing security bilateralism among certain members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

According to Graham, it would make no sense for Vietnam to alienate the Philippines, its fellow frontline claimant in the South China Sea, as Manila sits in the ASEAN chair and leads the Code of Conduct negotiations with Beijing.

"The appearance of a Vietnamese fishing flotilla near one of the South China Sea’s most remote flashpoints is not just about catching fish. Hanoi’s legal and diplomatic motivations run deeper. It will be interesting to see if China reacts," Graham said.

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