By Carl Thayer
After a tense six months, China-Vietnam relations took a major step toward mending with the unexpected three-day visit to Beijing by a 13-member high-level Vietnamese military delegation from October 16-18, led by Minister of National Defense General Phung Quang Thanh. Thanh was invited by his Chinese counterpart General Chang Wanquan.
The most important outcome of the talks between the two defense ministers was agreement on a protocol establishing direct communication links between their respective ministries. This is an indication that both sides realized how quickly an incident could spiral out of control and lead to deadly force. From Vietnam’s point of view, it was important to demonstrate domestic political unity by bringing such a large delegation to Beijing.
In addition to his meetings with Chang, Thanh also met Vice President Le Yuanchao and Lt. Gen. Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo.
No joint statement was issued at the end of the visit. Chinese and Vietnamese media reporting of Thanh’s three bilateral meetings varied in their coverage. The Chinese media gave only sparse accounts, while the Vietnamese media provided more details on the substance of the exchanges. What is clear from media accounts is that the atmospherics of these bilateral meetings were cordial and positive. Both sides used past diplomatic formulations in an effort to overcome relations strained by the oil rig crisis which began on May 2.
Thanh tabled five proposals to rebuild confidence and trust and to provide both sides with reassurance that force would not be used. According to Vietnamese media accounts, he proposed that both militaries should remain calm, patient, show restraint, and strictly control activities at sea to avoid misunderstandings, prevent conflict, and not use force or the threat of force to settle maritime disputes.
Thanh proposed that the militaries should act in a humane manner towards fishermen and not confiscate equipment used to earn their livelihoods. In addition, both militaries should assist fishermen in distress and create conditions for them to go about their business, contributing to the common interests of both countries.
Thanh reiterated Vietnam’s long-standing policy on the peaceful settlement of South China Sea territorial disputes on the basis of international law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the full implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. He also urged China to reach a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with ASEAN.
Thanh asked China to lift its travel advisory so that economic exchanges and tourism could be restored to normal. Finally, he invited Chang to visit Vietnam. Both defense ministers agreed that military-to-military cooperation formed an important part of China-Vietnam relations.
Under the terms of a defense cooperation agreement reached in 2003, the two sides exchanged visits, held a strategic dialogue at deputy minister level, conducted personnel training, held discussions on Communist Party and political work in the military, coordinated the work of border guard units, and conducted joint patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin. Both ministers agreed that the 2003 protocol had led to positive outcomes and both sides should continue these activities in the future.
At the conclusion of their meeting, both defense ministers witnessed the signing of a technical memorandum of understanding on the establishment of direct communication lines between their respective ministries. China and Vietnam had agreed in 2008 to set up a hotline between their heads of state.
On October 16, in a further sign of an upturn in China-Vietnam relations, Premier Li Keqiang met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting in Milan, Italy. News reports quoted Li as saying China and Vietnam should “properly address and control maritime differences… Thanks to the efforts from both sides, China-Vietnam relations have ridden out the recent rough patch and gradually recovered.”
Dung was quoted as agreeing, and endorsed stepping up “cooperation in infrastructure, finance and maritime exploration,” three areas that had been agreed to during Li’s visit to Hanoi in October 2013.
China and Vietnam have begun to repair bilateral relations by utilizing trusted party-to-party and military-to-military links, by-passing their respective foreign ministries. These developments need to be treated with a degree of caution. For the most part, they are restatements of past positions and agreements.
Another litmus test of the state of China-Vietnam relations will come at the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) summit hosted by China and the East Asia Summit hosted by Myanmar in November. Will Chinese and Vietnamese leaders meet on the sidelines and agree to make progress on settling their differences? China’s recent extension of the runway on Woody Island in the Paracels and the visit to land reclamation sites in the Spratly archipelago by China’s Navy Commander Wu Shengli clearly demonstrate that territorial and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea remain the main irritant in bilateral relations.
Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia. Read more by Professor Thayer here.