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Vietnam, China Work to Ease South China Sea Tensions

An officer of the Vietnamese coast guard officer speaks on a radio as he monitors a Chinese vessel (top) in the South China Sea during a period of tension in 2014.
Vietnam and China Work to Ease South China Sea Tensions
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Vietnam and China have agreed to try to end their dispute over their conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.

On Saturday, the two nations released a joint statement in Beijing. In the statement, they said they would try to peacefully settle their conflicting claims in the Sea.

State-run media in both countries reported on the statement. It was released during a four-day visit to China by Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the visit.

The Vietnamese news website reported that the two leaders agreed to speed up talks on joint development in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The report said the agreement means “effectively stepping up” joint projects in “less sensitive” areas.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also claim parts of the Sea. The area holds rich fishing areas and could hold large amounts of oil or gas. Unlike Vietnam, countries with claims to the area usually do not publicly criticize China’s naval activities in the South China Sea or its island-building activities.

South China Sea territorial claims conflict at the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
South China Sea territorial claims conflict at the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Frederick Burke is one of the leaders of the Ho Chi Minh City office of the Baker & McKenzie multinational law firm.

He says improved relations between China and Vietnam could help protect ships that bring exports from Asia to markets in the West. He says it will also make the commercial fishing industry safer.

“There was a concern about instability, and that this might be a flashpoint for conflicts as China’s military capacity continues to grow. I think those concerns won’t disappear overnight, but this is a very strong positive message that the parties will work things out.”

Some experts say Vietnam is the strongest opponent of China’s expansion into the 3.5 million-square-kilometer Sea. It competes with China for control of the Spratly group of islands. Vietnam also has criticized China’s control of the Paracel Islands, which are east of Vietnam and southwest of Hong Kong.

In 1974, China seized some of the Paracel islands, which were controlled by South Vietnamese troops at the time. South Vietnam fell to the communist North in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.

In 1988, 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed in a naval battle with China.

Most recently, boats from the two countries rammed into one another in 2014. The incident caused deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.

Hoang Viet Phuong is the head of institutional research and investment advisory at SSI Securities Services in Hanoi. She said the agreement has not caused people in Vietnam to change their beliefs about China yet, especially about economic relations.

“At this point in time we haven’t seen any real development except for the recent visit to China, but the real impact, we need to work on that. I think people might not be that excited, except for the fact that last year we know that quite a lot of tourists came to Vietnam," she said.

Experts say it is too early to know the result of the new effort by the two countries.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Correspondent Ralph Jennings reported this story from Taipei. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story into Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

stepping up –v. to increase, to bring to a higher level

flash point –n. a situation where sudden conflict or violence could happen

capacity –n. ability to put something into use

work things out –v. to find a solution

ram –v. to crash into

tourists –n. someone who travels to a country for pleasure