This was the main issue agreed upon by President Benigno S. Aquino III and Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet during their bilateral meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Presidential Palace here. The two countries, along with Malaysia, Brunei, and China are claiming the group of islands of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays, and islands in the South China Sea that is believed to contain significant oil and gas deposits.

The two leaders also have a similar stand concerning their neighboring junta-ruled Myanmar.

"They talked about the shared position on the South China Sea that all claimants should abide by the Code of Conduct. They both agreed that Myanmar should do more to move toward democracy," Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Secretary Ramon "Ricky" Carandang.

Aquino earlier said he would make strong statements about Myanmar during his attendance in the 17th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit here starting Thursday.

During the meeting, Triet and some of his ministers requested for the release of the 32 Vietnamese fishermen arrested in the Philippines for fishing in our territory.

The President promised a quick review of their case in accordance with Philippine laws. "He said that 11 of the fishermen had already been freed," Carandang said.

The two leaders also agreed to strengthen and expand mutually beneficial cooperation in defense, agriculture, education and training, and shipping. Aquino also met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung after meeting the Vietnamese President Tuesday.

At the state banquet hosted by Triet later Tuesday, Aquino spoke highly of the Philippine-Vietnam relations, even calling his counterpart, “my very good friend, President Nguyen Minh Triet.”

"Mr. President, allow me to thank you for your gracious invitation to me, to undertake this State Visit, the first of my presidency. The warm welcome accorded to me and to the entire Philippine delegation by the Vietnamese people and government is a clear sign of the close relations between our two nations," Aquino said.

He vowed continued support of his administration to the government of Vietnam and its people.

"It is a pleasure to be here, tonight, to express our best wishes to the government of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people as you undertake the chairmanship of the ASEAN. In regional unity, we have the means to sustain economic growth, advance our shared development agenda, and promote regional peace and stability.

Tonight is also a testament to our mutual commitment to find additional means and areas of cooperation that will benefit the Filipino and Vietnamese people," he added.

The Vietnamese President, meanwhile, reiterated his confidence that the Philippines will make even bigger progress under President Aquino’s leadership.

"The vibrant friendship between our two nations has already found expression in diverse areas, particularly in trade, fisheries, meteorology and hydrography, sports, and finance. With the signing of four more agreements, our respective governments are tangibly strengthening cooperation in higher education, defense, and maritime affairs," Aquino said.

"Next year, we will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Vietnam. It will be an excellent occasion for cultural exchanges and people-to-people activities to commemorate our friendship.

As the Philippines takes the first steps toward a more transparent, responsive, and economically competitive government, be assured, Excellency, that Vietnam remains an important partner of the Philippines. Indeed, our relationship will continue to prosper under my administration," he added.

By JC Bello Ruiz - Manila Bulletin - October 27, 2010