Philippine President Benigno Aquino, left, speaks to reporters on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe meeting June 5 in Manila while Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario looks on. (Jay Directo / AFP)
MANILA — Filipino and Vietnamese troops played volleyball and football in a contested South China Sea archipelago Sunday, a landmark act of sports diplomacy that both sides said could ease territorial tensions.
The games were hosted by Vietnam on one of the islands it controls in the Spratlys archipelago, a powder keg area of competing regional claims, Philippine Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic said.
“It is an activity we would like to (set as an) example to other (claimants),” in the area, Fabic said.
“These kind of activities will ease up tensions,” he said.
The Spratlys are a disputed archipelago of reefs, islands and atolls in the South China Sea that is coveted by the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The region is believed to sit atop oil and other mineral deposits and all of the claimants, save for Brunei, have troops in the islands.
As well as the games, both sides took turns in showing cultural presentations with troops allowed to interact with each other to “foster camaraderie,” Fabic said.
He added that the Philippine Navy had offered to host next year’s games, with officials also hoping that other claimant countries would be able to join. He did not say how many troops were involved in Sunday’s event.
The games come a time of heightened tension in the Spratlys. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, which is also a vital shipping lane for global commerce.
The Philippines and Vietnam have in recent years accused China of increasingly flexing its military muscle in the region, including the deployment of a Chinese oil rig to the north of the Spratlys.
Vietnam had accused China of sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel last month near the oil rig.
Manila is also investigating claims that China has begun a series of land reclamation projects on reefs within the archipelago, potentially to build an airstrip.
The games Sunday were meant to show that rival claimants could go beyond the dispute and cooperate, the two sides said.
The Philippines and Vietnam “deem that this activity serves as a proof that disputes do not hinder development of practical and tangible cooperation between the two navies,” a joint statement said.
“Conversely, this also serves as a model of cooperation for the other navies to emulate,” they added.