China and Vietnam should deepen their relationship and seek to resolve their disputes “properly”, Chinese President Xi Jinping told his Vietnamese counterpart, President Nguyen Phu Trong, on Thursday as the two nations remain locked in a territorial clash over the South China Sea.
“We have to continue to strengthen mutual political trust, spread the traditional Sino-Vietnamese friendship and deepen the roots of our relations, while also focusing on the big picture to handle and solve our disputes properly in the long run,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying in a telephone call to Nguyen.
Despite their tumultuous relationship, which included a prolonged border war that ran from 1979 to 1990, China and Vietnam are this year celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties.
According to Xinhua, Nguyen told Xi that: “Vietnam hopes to strengthen mutual political trust and exchange governing experience with China, push forward more economic cooperation, build support from the public on friendly cooperation, and expand communication on multiple levels.”
Tensions between Beijing and Hanoi rose in July, when the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered an area of the South China Sea where they have overlapping claims, sparking their worst stand-off in years.
The ship sailed close to Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef in the resource-rich Spratly Island chain, which sits within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone but which Beijing says falls within the “nine-dash line” it uses to claim sovereignty over about 90 per cent of the disputed waterway.
Although those tensions eased after the Chinese ship left the area in late September, relations between the two countries are set to face a new challenge this year as Vietnam takes over as chairman of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Besides Vietnam, China is also embroiled in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – all of which are members of Asean – and since last month in a maritime conflict with Indonesia, which is also a member.
The next two Asean summits will be held in Vietnam in April/May and October/November, and the South China Sea is likely to be one of the hot topics on their agendas.
Le Hong Hiep, an expert in Sino-Vietnamese relations at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that with the relationship between the two countries in a “fragile” state, the way in which Hanoi addressed the South China Sea issue at the regional meetings was likely to be influenced by how Beijing acted in the meantime.
“As Asean chair, Vietnam is in a good position to highlight the South China Sea issue at the Asean meetings in 2020, especially if China takes any provocative action,” he said.
“But Vietnam also wants to make its chairmanship a success, and does not want to be seen as taking Asean hostage by overemphasising the South China Sea issue. Therefore, Hanoi will expect Beijing to exercise restraint.”
Xu Liping, a professor at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said that while the South China Sea would continue to be a challenge, Beijing would not shy away from taking action in the disputed waterway if it felt another nation had crossed one of its “bottom lines”.
“The priority for Beijing is to push for constructive developments on a code of conduct for the South China Sea,” he said.
Asean and China are in talks to establish a code of conduct for the disputed waterway and an agreement is expected to be reached by next year.
However, progress has been slow, as Beijing is seeking a non-binding deal that it said would improve regional trust but would not be used to resolve territorial claims.
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More from South China Morning Post:
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This article Xi Jinping says China, Vietnam should resolve their disputes ‘properly’ first appeared on South China Morning Post