China and Vietnam said Wednesday they’re committed to negotiating maritime disputes to avoid a recurrence of tensions that spiked when China deployed an oil rig in waters claimed by Hanoi.
The statement followed talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese special envoy Le Hong Anh to resolve a crisis in relations dating from the rig’s deployment in May.
China’s move triggered fury in Hanoi, but Beijing rejected Vietnamese complaints and pulled the rig out on its own terms in July.
The friendship between China and Vietnam was created and nourished by older generations of leaders, state broadcaster CCTV quoted Xi as saying. “While clashes are inevitable between neighbors, what’s crucial is how they are handled and what kind of attitude is taken,” he said.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the sides would work toward a mutually acceptable and durable solution.
They also agreed to research joint development in the disputed area of the South China Sea, not take actions to complicate or broaden the dispute, and to “maintain the stability of the overall China-Vietnam relationship and of the South China Sea,” Xinhua said.
China attacked Vietnam in 1979 to punish it for invading Cambodia and the two have since fought over island groups in the South China Sea. They settled their land border more than a decade ago, but remain at odds over their maritime claims.
This summer’s feuding was the worst in years, leading vessels from both nations to spar close to the rig and setting off deadly anti-Chinese riots across Vietnam.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is widespread in Vietnam, and is often tapped into by the country’s dissident movement, which criticizes the government for its allegedly subservient relationship to its Communist brethren next door.
The tensions led to speculation that Hanoi might swing relations in favor of its old adversary the United States, as have other Southeast Asian nations locked in territorial disputes with China.
However, the government was seen as split between those favoring a strategic shift to Washington and a faction believing that China, its ideological ally, giant neighbor and vital economic partner, can be accommodated.
As The Diplomat reported earlier, Vietnam sent a special envoy to China for bilateral talks this week. Politburo member Le Hong Anh, acting as a special envoy from Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, met with high-ranking Chinese leaders. Anh’s visit was embraced by both sides as a chance to mend bilateral ties that soured earlier this summer during a standoff over the placement of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters.
Anh met with Chinese President (and CCP General-Secretary) Xi Jinping on Wednesday afternoon. During their meeting, Xi emphasized the common bond between the two countries, as neighbors and communist regimes. As Xi put it, “A neighbor cannot be moved away and it is in the common interests of both sides to be friendly to each other.” This, in essence, is the root of China’s “neighborhood diplomacy” policy — acknowledging that friendly ties with the countries in China’s immediate area will be the most important factor in providing a peaceful environment for China’s continued rise.
In terms of concrete solutions, Anh’s meeting with Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, had more to offer. Liu said that both Hanoi and Beijing were “unwilling to see” the relationship continue to be “tense and difficult.” To move forward, Chinese and Vietnamese officials agreed to avoid actions that might exacerbate maritime disputes.
Le Hong Anh, (left) Politburo member and permanent member of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee (CPVCC) Secretariat — was sent to Beijing by Vietnam to seek stability in the future relationship between China and Vietnam. On the right, China’s Wang Jiarui, Vice Chairperson of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference
Specifically, the agreement calls for both sides to return to the guidelines for handling their disputes that were laid out in an October 2011 agreement between China’s then-President Hu Jintao and Vietnam’s party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong. On Wednesday, China and Vietnam agreed to make use of the border negotiation mechanism established in 2011, and to study the possibility of joint exploration of the South China Sea. Most importantly, both sides agreed to “avoid actions that might complicate and expand the disputes.”
While the progress made is promising, it’s also telling that China and Vietnam are pledging to return to a previous agreement — one that clearly was not enough to keep current tensions from arising in the first place. The October 2011 agreement, which established biannual border negotiations as well as setting up a hotline between the two governments, was of little use when tensions actually ramped up. It neither prevented China from putting its oil rig near the Paracels nor allowed for quick and decisive resolution of the stand-off. Instead, tensions dragged out for months with no resolution.
The October 2011 agreement is a feel-good arrangement in times of peace, but when push comes to shove it’s already been proven ineffective. It’s unlikely that the current agreement (which largely relies on a renewed commitment to the 2011 version) will be a game changer. Both China and Vietnam have repeatedly indicated they have no intention of changing their fundamental positions on sovereignty issues, meaning the best case scenario in the short-term is a simply shelving of the disputes. On paper, that’s what the two sides have agreed to do — but different interpretations of what constitutes a “dispute” and a “complication” could render the agreement effectively meaningless.
For example, many analysts (including The Diplomat’s Dingding Chen) fully expect China’s oil rig to return to disputed waters as part of Beijing’s strategy to assert sovereignty over the region. Beijing could easily do so while still claiming to be upholding its agreement with Vietnam. How? China does not recognize the Paracel Islands as under dispute — and thus can choose not to see its placement of an oil rig in their vicinity as “complicating” any dispute.
For now, however, China and Vietnam are moving forward with their relationship. During Anh’s visit, the two sides announced that they would resume cooperation on defense and trade, but the relationship remains fragile as long as it is subject to major disruptions every few years.