By Nguyen Manh Hung
Tensions between Vietnam and China were reduced substantially in July after China withdrew its oil rig from Vietnam’s continental shelf. The two countries have since begun to take steps to restore friendly and neighborly relations.
Unlike the situation during the oil rig crisis when requests for talks by Vietnamese leaders went unanswered by Beijing while the two countries’ ships rammed each other, the two governments are now busy exchanging high-level visits.
China has welcomed three important Vietnamese delegations to Beijing. The first was led by Politburo member Le Hong Anh, special envoy of the secretary general of the Communist Party, who met with Chinese leaders on August 26-27 to discuss “measures to ease the situation, prevent the recurrence of recent tensions, and enhance the relationship between the two parties and two countries.”
Anh’s ice-breaking trip was followed by the visit of a 13-member senior military delegation led by Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh on October 16-18. Thanh and his Chinese counterpart “reached consensus on developing bilateral military relations…, pledging to properly handle their maritime disputes.” They agreed to set up a hotline between the two militaries.
Finally, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, President Truong Tan Sang met with President Xi Jinping on November 10 to discuss bilateral relations, including tensions in the South China Sea. The two leaders agreed to settle their maritime dispute through peaceful means, negotiations, “and respecting international law and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” They reached a consensus to complete delineating their border in the Tonkin Gulf, strengthen cooperation in the gulf, and conduct joint surveys in the area.
China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, meanwhile made his second visit to Hanoi on October 27 to repair bilateral ties. Yang and his Vietnamese counterpart agreed that both sides should “properly address and control differences at sea to create favorable condition for bilateral cooperation.”
A week later, on November 4, a theoretical seminar between high-ranking members of the two communist parties took place in Dalat, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, to discuss experiences in building a socialist country under the rule of law.
China’s moves reinforced the position of Vietnamese leaders seeking an accommodation with Beijing and undermined the politburo consensus to adopt a hard line toward China reached after several meetings during the oil-rig crisis. Chinese moves also weakened Vietnam’s efforts to develop a coordinated ASEAN position opposed to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
But this surface calm has been undermined by Chinese words and actions, and caused concern in Vietnam.
On the one hand, the Chinese media has stepped up its criticism of Vietnam for bad faith. The People’s Daily on October 31 complained that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, during his recent visit to India, had reached agreement with New Delhi to increase cooperation in exploring for gas in the South China Sea, just after China and Vietnam had agreed to refrain from taking actions that might “complicate and aggravate” their maritime dispute. The article warned that the blocks on which India and Vietnam were cooperating lay in disputed territory.
Then, before Vietnam’s president arrived in Beijing for the APEC summit, the Global Times, a daily under the auspices of the People’s Daily, published an article on November 8 calling the decision of PetroVietnam to continue discussions with ExxonMobil on an agreement for energy cooperation off the central Vietnamese city of Quang Ngai a “violation of Chinese sovereignty” and a “stab in China’s back.” The article criticized Vietnam for “not being sincere in contributing any substantial efforts to normalizing relations with China.”
At the same time, China continued to strengthen its military positions and reinforce its claims in the South China Sea. In early October, Chinese state media said a runway had been completed on Woody Island, part of the contested Paracel Islands, in an apparent bid to strengthen its position in the area. China’s effort to turn Johnson South Reef, a position Beijing seized from Vietnam in the Spratly Islands in 1988, into an artificial island was described by former deputy minister of defense Gen. Nguyen Van Rinh as a dark design, laying the foundation for implementing “China’s dream” in the South China Sea.
Most worrisome, at the time that Defense Minister Thanh visited China to restore military relations, Vietnamese sources report that China sent a survey vessel escorted by four warships to Vanguard Bank to do exploration work between October 10 and October 24 and then withdrew before Vietnamese leaders could agree on a response. Vanguard Bank is an area on Vietnam’s southern continental shelf where three years ago Chinese vessels cut the seismic cable of a PetroVietnam survey ship.
It was in this context that, Gen. Do Ba Ty, Vietnam’s chief of general staff, declared in a meeting of the National Assembly on October 21 that the “Chinese plot to impose the cow-tongue line and unilaterally occupy the East Sea remains unchanged,” using the name by which Vietnam identifies the South China Sea. “The only difference is that the struggle moves to a new phase, more intense and complex.” Ty warned ominously that “we should be vigilant” and that “if we do not want war we must prepare well for war.”
The rocky relations between Vietnam and China appear to be far from settled. China’s two-pronged approach—talking peace and promising closer relations while gradually nipping away at Vietnam’s territorial integrity—will undoubtedly pose a challenge to Vietnam’s foreign policy for years to come.
Dr. Nguyen Manh Hung is professor emeritus of government and international relations at George Mason University, and a non-resident senior associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.