MANILA |MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines and Vietnam on Wednesday signed agreements to expand non-military cooperation of their maritime forces in the South China Sea, avoiding formal military pacts on the disputed waters that could provoke protests from China.The two governments also discussed their desire to push for a multilateral and rules-based approach in resolving disputes in the South China Sea.
Manila invited Hanoi to invest in about 15 oil and gas blocks being offered for exploration in areas outside disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang witnessed the signing of four agreements, including a blueprint for a five-year cooperation in 13 areas that included agriculture, energy, and technology.
The more important deals involved information sharing and creating a hotline to deal with maritime issues, such as piracy, smuggling, disaster response and protection of marine resources.
"The agreements on the establishment of a hotline communications mechanism between our coast guards, and the agreement linking our two navies mark significant progress in ensuring a safer and more secure maritime area," Aquino said after bilateral talks.
Sang promised his government's support for Manila's proposal for a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC) in the South China Sea. The proposal will complement implementing guidelines of an informal code of conduct by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China.
"We again confirmed the importance of the maintenance of peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea," Sang said, adding he hopes ASEAN would come up with a binding code.
Vietnam refers to the South China Sea as East Sea, while the Philippines calls it West Philippine Sea.
Officials said Sang assured Aquino that the six-point pact signed by Vietnam and China this month on the South China Sea would not go against the multilateral and rules-based approach pushed by Manila in resolving disputes.
Manila and Hanoi had protested earlier this year China's activities in the South China Sea, and both had planned a joint complaint on Beijing's claim in the disputed waters.
The Philippines, Vietnam, China and two other Southeast Asian states have conflicting claims over parts of the South China Sea, a potentially oil- and gas-rich body of water spanned by key shipping lanes.
(Reporting By Manny Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco)