When the China-Vietnam oil rig crisis broke out in May, regional analysts opined that bilateral relations had been set back several decades as a result of the worst crisis since the 1979 border war. This assessment was premature. There are now signs that Beijing and Hanoi are moving to reset their relations and pick up where they were prior to the oil rig crisis.
The oil rig crisis witnessed physical confrontations by Chinese and Vietnamese civilian law enforcement vessels, an upsurge in anti-China sentiment in Vietnam including violent anti-China riots, the evacuation of Chinese workers from Vietnam, a drop in Chinese tourism to Vietnam, and Vietnamese threats to take international legal action against China. There were even calls by Vietnam’s political elite “to exit China’s orbit.”
Initially China played diplomatic hardball and rebuffed all Vietnamese efforts to send special envoys and to open up bilateral channels of communications between government ministries and agencies most directly affected. Vietnamese leaders held two main concerns. First, they could not appear to be buckling under pressure from Beijing, especially given the intensity of domestic anti-China sentiment. Second, Vietnamese leaders wanted to contain the fallout from the oil rig crisis and prevent it from damaging the broader bilateral relationship.
Chinese leaders also had a re-think. On June 18, State Councilor Yang Jiechi traveled to Hanoi to attend the annual meeting of the Joint Steering Committee that oversees the China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. Media and academic commentary focused almost exclusively on Yang’s remarks on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The significance of Yang’s visit was that he came at all. It signaled that China wanted to prevent South China Sea disputes from rupturing the broader bilateral relationship.
Yang’s visit resulted in confidential behind-the-scenes discussions by external relations specialists from the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties. In July, China withdrew its oil rig HD 981 from disputed waters. In late August, China received Le Hong Anh, special envoy of the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party, thus ending Beijing’s diplomatic stonewalling of Vietnamese efforts to open a dialogue.
China-Vietnam relations took a major step forward with the unexpected three-day visit to Beijing by a 13-member high-level Vietnamese military delegation led by its minister of national defense, General Phung Quang Thanh. General Thanh was invited by his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan. The delegation arrived on October 16 and departed two days later.
China laid out the red carpet for General Thanh. On the morning of October 17 Thanh inspected a People’s Liberation Army honor guard at the Ministry of Defense. Immediately after the two sides held formal discussions. General Thanh was received later in the day by Vice President Li Yuanchao. On the following morning, General Thanh met with Lt. Gen. Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission and member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo. No joint statement was issued.
Chinese and Vietnamese media reporting of General Thanh’s three bilateral meetings varied in their coverage. The Chinese media provided only sparse accounts, while the Vietnamese media provided greater 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. For example, General Chang stressed China has always valued friendly and cooperative relations with Vietnam and that General Thanh’s visit would contribute to the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in general and defense relations in particular.
General Thanh opened his remarks by congratulating the Chinese people for their accomplishments over the past 65 years. Thanh expressed his appreciation for the positive development of China-Vietnam relations in recent years. He reaffirmed Vietnam’s basic policy of highly valuing good neighborly relations and comprehensive cooperation with China.
General Thanh also noted that overall relations between China and Vietnam were developing well and that disputes over maritime sovereignty were the only stumbling block in bilateral relations.
Pleasantries aside, General Thanh tabled five proposals to rebuild confidence and trust and to provide both sides with reassurance that force would not be used.
According to Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the organ of the Vietnam People’s Army, General Thanh 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.
General Thanh proposed that the military should act in a humane manner towards fishermen and not confiscate equipment used to earn their livelihood. In addition, the military should assist fishermen in distress and create conditions for them to go about their business, thus contributing to the common interests of both sides.
General Thanh reiterated Vietnam’s long-standing policy on the peaceful settlement of South China Sea territorial disputes on the basis of international law and 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. Thanh urged China to reach a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Genera Thanh requested China to lift its travel advisory so that economic exchanges and tourism could be restored to normal.
Finally, General Thanh invited General 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 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 to step up 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. No further details were released.
According to Xinhua, the two ministers “reached consensus on developing bilateral military relations… pledging to properly handle their maritime disputes.” The two ministers further “decided to gradually resume and promote the healthy and stable development of bilateral military ties.”
Xinhua also quoted from “a statement” that read, “both sides’ armed forces should enhance solidarity and provide a strong guarantee for the governing status of the communist parties of the two countries and the cause of socialist construction.” Finally, the two ministers agreed “to abide by the consensus reached by both leaders and play a positive role in dealing with maritime disputes and safeguarding a peaceful and stable situation.”
General Thanh’s meeting with Vice President Li was equally cordial. Li opened the conversation by noting that General Thanh’s visit “would contribute to boosting bilateral relations, strengthen understanding, trust and mutually beneficial cooperation between the two parties, states, and militaries. Li also emphasized that China attached great importance to cooperation and friendship with Vietnam and stressed the importance of traditional friendly cooperation by senior leaders.
Xinhua reported that Vice President Li called on both sides “to intensify strategic communication, enhance political trust, manage maritime disputes, promote joint development, and strengthen tangible cooperation so as to forge ahead bilateral relations.”
General Thanh passed on the greetings of Vietnam’s party and state leaders. Thanh informed Vice President Li that the purpose of his visit was to promote the understanding reached by their leaders previously and to promote healthy, long-term and stable relations between the two parties, states and armed forces.
Xinhua paraphrased General Thanh as stating, “Vietnam and China have maintained close contacts and enjoyed broad common interests… the Vietnamese military is willing to contribute to the development of bilateral military and state relations as well as the peace and stability of the region.”
General Thanh met with General Fan Changlong on the morning of his departure. According to Chinese media accounts General Fan told his visitor, “a neighboring country cannot be moved away. It is in the common interest of China and Vietnam to live in amity, handle disputes properly and promote common development.”
Fan also noted that the armed forces of both countries had significant responsibility to safeguard and sustain bilateral ties and should contribute “positive energy” towards this end. “We should make our troops well-behaved,” he said, “and not make remarks harming the feelings of both people or do things undermining the overall bilateral relations.”
Vietnamese media reported that General Thanh affirmed that Vietnam attached special importance to good neighborliness and comprehensive cooperation with China and both sides should fully implement the common understanding reached by their leaders. General Thanh reiterated in detail Vietnam’s long-standing policy to resolve maritime disputes by peaceful means, under international law, and to reach a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
On October 16, in a positive 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. News reports quoted Premier 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.”
Prime Minister Dung was quoted as being in agreement 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, bypassing their respective foreign ministries. These developments need to be treated with a degree of caution. All professions of mutual respect, traditional good neighborly relations, and perceptions of high-level leaders have been said before.
It is important to note the size and composition of the two defense delegations. Military commanders on both sides of the border and at sea have met their respective counterparts. More importantly, these commanders have all witnessed the verbal understandings reached by their respective ministers. Military commanders on both sides can be expected to carry out their duties accordingly.
From Vietnam’s point of view, the visit by its Defense Minister was important to demonstrate unity to China by bringing such a large delegation to Beijing.
Chinese and Vietnamese military commanders are now committed to stepping up existing defense cooperation activities in a number of areas. Analysts will have to “watch this space” to determine if words are followed by deeds.
When will Defense Minister Chang take up the invitation to visit Hanoi? It would be a sign of progress if General Chang attended the seventieth anniversary celebrations marking the founding of the Vietnam People’s Army on December 22.
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 a positive indication that both sides realize how quickly an incident could spiral out of control and lead to deadly force.
Another indication of the state of China-Vietnam relations will come at the APEC Summit hosted by China later this month 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 clearly demonstrate that territorial and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea remain the main irritant in bilateral relations.