MANILA, Philippines – Vietnamese and Philippine naval forces planned to play football, volleyball and tug-of-war Sunday in the first such display of camaraderie in the Spratly Islands in the South China sea where territorial rifts with China have flared.
The two countries' navies said in a joint statement that the daylong sports festival would be held Sunday on Vietnamese-occupied Southwest Cay Island and would also include cultural presentations. Philippine navy officials were not immediately aware if the games had started because it was difficult to establish contact with their forces in the area.
China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims in the Spratlys, a group of hundreds of mostly barren islands, reefs and atolls that are believed to be sitting atop oil and natural gas deposits.
Although they're technically rivals, Vietnam and the Philippines have recently discussed ways to cooperate to ease tensions in the disputed waters, where both have been engaged in dangerous standoffs with China.
The rare event aims "to foster camaraderie and friendly relations between the two nations," the two navies said, adding it was "a proof that disputes do not hinder development of practical and tangible cooperation."
"This also serves as a model of cooperation for the other navies to emulate," they said.
China, which claims it has had sovereign rights over virtually the entire South China Sea since ancient times, has protested any military activity in the area other than by its own. Beijing has so far ignored a call by the United States and other governments for it to define the limits of its claims and show proof of ownership.
In early May, China deployed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Hanoi, an action that set off violent protests in Vietnam that killed at least two Chinese and led to the burning of several factories suspected to be owned by Chinese. The violence has since died down, but Chinese and Vietnamese ships remain in a tense standoff near the rig.
Chinese coast guard ships have also faced off against small contingent of Philippine marines stationed on a grounded navy ship in the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys since last year. The Chinese ships have tried to block Philippine civilian vessels delivering fresh batch of marines and food supplies to the disputed shoal.