This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Vietnam. The two countries are observing it as the China-Vietnam Friendship Year. In November last year, they had signed a number of agreements on the demarcation of their 1,300-kilometer land boundary and agreed to begin discussions to formulate the guidelines to solve the pending issues relating to the South China Sea.
2. This was followed by apparently cordial discussions during the fourth meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee on Co-Operation, which was held at Beijing on July 1,2010. According to a despatch of the Xinhua news agency, during the meeting the two countries agreed “to properly deal with the maritime territorial issues in the South China Sea”. According to the agency, this was one of the five consensus decisions reached at the meeting , which was co-chaired by Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem.
3.According to Xinhua, Mr.Khiem reaffirmed that Vietnam was willing to work with China to properly handle the South China Sea issues in the light of the overall situation of bilateral relations and the friendship between the two peoples, as well as the need to maintain stability. During the meeting, China and Vietnam also agreed to further increase political exchanges, deepen economic and trade cooperation, strengthen cultural exchanges and enhance coordination on major international and regional issues.
4.Mr.Dai said that the bilateral relations were at a crucial period of inheriting the past and forging ahead into the future. He added: “The 60-year history of bilateral relations prove that developing China-Vietnam friendship is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and the two peoples.It is also conducive to the peace and prosperity of the region.”
5.Mr.Dai further said that since the third meeting of the Steering Committee on Cooperation last year, the pragmatic cooperation between the two countries had achieved new progress. He mentioned in this connection the growing political exchanges, productive mutual beneficial cooperation, dynamic cultural exchanges, progress in dealing with boundary issues, and closer coordination and mutual support on major international and regional issues. He stressed that, in the interest of the future development of bilateral relations, the two sides should always bear in mind the general situation and take a long-term perspective while maintaining good neighborly friendship. He called on the two sides to learn from each other so as to achieve common development, and to increase mutual trust and understanding to appropriately cope with problems through friendly negotiations. He added: “China is ready to work with Vietnam to steer the development of bilateral relations from a strategic height and use the China-Vietnam Steering Committee on Cooperation as a platform to push forward the bilateral comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”
6.Mr.Khiem said it was the firm position of the Vietnamese party and Government to continuously enhance the Vietnam-China comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, which was also the priority of Vietnam’s foreign relations. He added: “Vietnam always remembers China’s support and help for its revolution and construction and is committed to developing a long-lasting friendship with China. Vietnam is willing to work with China to enhance cooperation in various areas.”
7. Thus, till the first week of July,2010, the relations between the two countries remained cordial despite the persistence of differences over their respective claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and there were indications that they had agreed to discuss the differences in an attempt to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement similar to their agreements of last year on the demarcation of the land border. Things started going wrong between the two countries after Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, forcefully referred to the South China Sea issue at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at Hanoi in the third week of July,2010, and projected the US as an interested party in ensuring the right of free navigation. While the US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, it has vital interests in protecting the right of free movement of ships and aircraft. An obvious inference from her intervention was that the US has decided to challenge any Chinese claim that China had sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.
8. China had been making this claim for some years and it was reiterated after the ARF meeting. Xinhua reported as follows on July 30,2010: “A Chinese Defense Ministry official Friday (July 30) said China had “indisputable sovereignty” over islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding waters.Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said at a press conference that China would push for the resolution of differences regarding the South China Sea with “relevant countries” through dialogue and negotiations and objected to having the issue internationalized. China would respect the liberty of ships and aircraft from “relevant countries” traversing the South China Sea in accordance with international laws, Geng said.”
9. It was this projection of the South China Sea as national waters over which China had historically exercised sovereignty which Mrs.Clinton sought to challenge vigorously, The US had been challenging such Chinese claims even earlier, but in a low-profile manner so that it did not affect the USA’s bilateral relations with China. The Hanoi meeting of the ARF marked a turning point in the US pronouncements on the subject. Mrs.Clinton openly and vigorously put forward the US position on the issues raised by China’s stand on the South China Sea without worrying any longer about its impact on US-China relations. It was as if the US had decided that the time had come for a frank projection of the US stand in public instead of expressing its misgivings to Beijing in private as it was doing in the past.
10.What caused the significant change in the US stand? Was it the unhappiness of the Administration of President Barack Obama over what it perceived as the non-co-operative Chinese stand at the climate summit at Copenhagen towards the end of last year? Was it the concern of Washington DC over the Chinese reluctance to condemn North Korea in connection with the attack on a South Korean ship in March last? Was it Washington’s anger over the perceived snub from Beijing which refused to agree to a visit by Mr.Robet Gates, the US Defence Secretary, to Beijing in protest against the US proposal to sell more arms to Taiwan? Was it any private expression of concern to the US by some members of the ASEAN over the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea and over what they perceived as China’s double standards on the issue. China sought to prevent any attempts by countries such as Vietnam to explore the area and waters claimed by them for oil and gas on the ground that all issues relating to sovereign rights of exploration, fishing rights etc should be kept reserved for settlement at a future date, while Beijing itself did not observe this agreement in letter and spirit. It is difficult to say exactly what caused the vigorous US intervention in favour of the ASEAN countries at Hanoi. It was probably a mixture of all these factors.
11.According to the “Washington Post” of July 31,2010,Mr. Dai Bingguo told Mrs.Hillary Clinton in May, 2010 during a tense exchange on the region that China viewed its claims to the South China Sea as a “core national interest.” The Chinese Embassy in Washington also asked the State Department not to raise the subject in the run-up to the meeting in Hanoi and apparently thought Washington would follow its wishes.The Chinese were taken by surprise when she raised the issue despite the Chinese request not to do so at the ARF meeting on July 23,2010. The “Wasington Post” said: “The U.S. push on the issue seems to have taken Chinese leaders by surprise although U.S. officials have been speaking with China about the problem for months.U.S. and Asian officials have said that Vietnam and the United States spearheaded the push in part over concerns that China’s navy has become increasingly aggressive in the sea, seizing fishing boats and arresting sailors from other countries. Some exchanges of gunfire have also occurred in recent months, Asian officials said. ”
12. The extent of Hanoi’s annoyance with Beijing would be evident from the fact that it has taken measures which would definitely annoy Beijing to strengthen its relations with the US. Two developments are of considerable significance in this connection. The first is the report that the US and Vietnam are negotiating a civil nuclear co-operation agreement similar to the agreement signed by the US with India in July,2005. The second is the visit, apparently with Hanoi’s concurrence, of the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier USS Washington to Vietnamese waters on August 8 to mark the 15th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam.This ship had earlier participated in joint exercises with the South Korean Navy in the Sea of Japan. It was to have sailed into the Yellow Sea during the exercise, but the US decided to keep the exercise away from the Yellow Sea in response to Chinese protests. At the same time, it has made it clear that the US reserved the right to send the ship to the Yellow Sea, possibly in September, as part of another joint exercise with the South Korean Navy. For Vietnam to have received this ship, which is of concern to China which does not as yet have an aircraft carrier of its own, is a bold step to underline its annoyance with Beijing over the way it has been seeking to impose its will on the ASEAN countries having legitimate claims in the South China Sea. Some Chinese analysts have described these indicators of the US and Vietnam coming closer together as destabilising. This has not deterred Vietnam from going ahead with its overtures to the US.
13. Ms Nguyen Phuong Nga, a spokesperson of the Vietnamese Foreign Office, said on August 5,2010, that Chinese vessels were conducting seismic exploration since late May near the Xisha Islands ( Paracel Islands). She accused China of “violating Vietnam’s sovereignty (and) its sovereign rights in the South China Sea.” In an apparent rejoinder, Ms.Jiang Yu of the Chinese Foreign Office said in a press release posted on the Ministry’s website on August 6 that China firmly opposed any remarks and actions that violated its sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and adjacent waters in the South China Sea. She added: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and adjacent waters.”
14. Su Hao, Director of the Strategy and Conflict Management Research Center at the China Foreign Affairs University, has told the “China Daily” that international law and history gave China sovereignty over the area. “China was the first to have discovered and named the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea and also the first to have officially placed the South China Sea islands under the jurisdiction of its Government.Actually, Chinese vessels have been doing research in the Xisha area for a long time. It is not the first time. The Vietnamese are now challenging the status quo with no historical and legal backing at all and it’s remarks coincided with the position of the US.Vietnam has brought the South China Sea issue up intentionally, aiming to internationalize the issue, so that it can act as a stronger counterweight to China, backed by the US.”
15.Xu Liping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has claimed that Vietnam did not raise any question of China’s sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and adjacent waters when Vietnam and China established diplomatic relations. He added: ” The US needs Vietnam as one of its tools to counter-balance China’s development,but in my opinion, the two countries will not get too close, they are just taking what they need from each other at the moment.”
16. The Chinese response to the developments in the US-Vietnam relations need close monitoring. Will it ultimately avoid any action against Vietnam and tone down its assertiveness in the South China Sea? Or, will it further step up its assertiveness to teach a lesson to Vietnam even at the risk of a possible naval conflict in the seas between the two countries?
17. Reports of Chinese assertiveness against Vietnam in the South China Sea have coincided with reports of China further strengthening its infrastructure links to Tibet to strengthen the rapid transport capability of its Army and Air Force. Some of the projects such as the construction of new airports in Tibet and increasing the freight capacity of the railway line to Tibet have been expedited and sought to be executed ahead of schedule. Why this hurry? Are the increasing activities of its infrastructure builders in Tibet indicative of its preparing itself for a military conflict with India if it decides that the time has come to force India to stop its infrastructure projects in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as southern Tibet. Military-related developments in China having a bearing on its relations with Vietnam and India need close attention.
( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )