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China-Vietnam Defence Ministers Meet: What About South China Sea Issues?

Carlyle A. Thayer , C3S Paper No. 2060

1- Why has China shown a willingness to meet with Vietnam’s high-level military representatives this time? Is the main topic territorial disputes in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: Ever since the oil rig HD 981 broke out in May Vietnam has repeatedly sought to engage China either by hot line, direct contact between responsible agencies or by special envoys. The recent talks between defense ministers is the outcome of China’s decision to re-engage Vietnam. This was signalled when State Councilor Yang Jiechi attended the Vietnam-China Joint Steering Committee meeting on June 18. This was followed by China’s decision to remove the HD981 from disputed waters a month earlier than planned. And finally, China agreed to receive Le Hong Anh, special envoy of the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party. China has been motivated to prevent bilateral relations from further deterioration.

Another factor motivating China is to appear conciliatory prior to hosting the APEC Summit later this month, and the East Asia Summit next month.

2 – How do you assess the visit coming at the same time as China’s continues to step up reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: The purpose of Defence Minster General Phung Quang Thanh’s visit was not to resolve territorial disputes in the East Sea but to set in place a mechanisms so the two sides could communicate directly in the event of another crisis. The two sides agreed to step up defence cooperation under the terms of a protocol signed in 2003. This verbal commitment must be followed by practical deeds. The visit of the Commander of the PLA Navy to reclamation projects in the East Sea is a sign that territorial and sovereignty disputes will remain the main irritant in China-Vietnam relations.

3- What significance do you attach to the large size of Vietnamese defence delegation – thirteen generals?

ANSWER: The size and composition of the two defense delegations is significant for two reasons. First, military commanders on both sides of the border and at sea have met their respective counterparts after the HD 981 crisis. Second, and more importantly, these commanders have all personally witnessed the verbal understandings reached by their respective ministers. Military commanders on both sides can be expected to carry out their duties indlucing stepping up existing defense cooperation activities in a number of areas.

From Vietnam’s point of view, the visit by its Defense Minister and twelve generals and one admiral was important to demonstrate unity to China.

4 – In your opinion, how will the hotline work in the future to resolve incidents in the South China Sea?

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 agreement will be tested when the next serious incident occurs. Presumably one side will contact the other to discuss the incident, exchange information, and prevent any escalation towards confrontation and the use of force.

The terms of this protocol have not been released but presumably both sides have nominated a point of contact.

5 – How Vietnam should respond to Chinese reclamation activities in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: Vietnam must continuously press China to be transparent about what purpose its land reclamation is serving and to exercise restraint in further activities. This matter should be raised at the working group level on the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s task is made more difficult by China’s conciliatory stance since June.

China’s reclamation activities are an extremely significant strategic development that does not seem to be appreciated by ASEAN leaders. In the past ASEAN leaders have adopted a Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (1971), Treaty of Amity and Cooperation for Southeast Asia (1976) and a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (1995). No doubt ASEAN leaders intended these documents to cover the South China Sea.

China’s reclamation and development activities have the potential to rip the maritime heart out of Southeast Asia and turn the South China Sea into a inland Chinese lake. This will mean that the three major documents on regional security will not apply in this area. ASEAN will loose its strategic depth and this will undermine the significance of an ASEAN Politcial-Security Community scheduled for late 2015.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China-Vietnam Defence Ministers Meet: What About South China Sea Issues?,” All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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