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How to Manage China-Vietnam Territorial Disputes

Ramses Amer and Li Jianwei
April 18, 2013
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One major pre-occupation for China and Vietnam since the full normalisation of bilateral relations in November 1991 has been the management of territorial disputes and containing tension arising from these disputes. For such purposes, China and Vietnam initiated a system of talks and discussions that are both highly structured and extensive Expert-level talks; Government-level talks, i.e. Deputy/Vice-Minister; Foreign Minister-level talks; and, High-level talks, i.e. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Secretary-Generals of the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Talks at the expert-level were initiated in October 1992; up until late 1995 the talks focused mainly on the land border and the Gulf of Tonkin. Talks at the government-level began in August 1993, and the thirteenth round of talks was held in January 2007. In addition, meetings and talks that have not been included in the official rounds were included. The first achievement was the signing of an agreement on the principles of handling the land border and the Gulf of Tonkin disputes in October 1993. Joint working groups at the expert-level were set up to deal with the two issues. The joint working group on the land border held sixteen rounds of talks from 1994 to 1999. The joint working group on the Gulf of Tonkin met seventeen times from 1994 to 2000. The negotiation process has led to the signing of the Land Border Treaty in 1999 and the first maritime delimitation agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2000. Thus, the deadline for resolving the land border and the Gulf of Tonkin issues were met.

Less progress has been achieved with regard to the disputes in the South China Sea. Talks at the expert-level were initiated in November 1995 and the eleventh round of talks was held in July 2006. However, both parties have yet to agree on which disputes should be included on the agenda. Vietnam pushes for the inclusion of the Paracels as an issue alongside that of the Spratlys, whereas China only wants to discuss the latter issue. To further complicate matters, China seems to view the disputes over water and continental shelf areas as part of the Spratly conflict, whereas Vietnam seems to view them as separate. It seems as though Vietnam does not want to initiate talks relating to such water and continental shelf, as it would be interpreted as giving legitimacy to China’s claims on those areas. Thus, of the above three South China Sea issues to be addressed by the two countries, only one was put on the agenda, namely the Spratly archipelago, which involves other claimants as well.

Post 2009 developments and responses

In early May 2009 Vietnam submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf a “Partial Submission” relating to Vietnam’s extended continental shelf in the “North Area” of the South China Sea, as well as a “Joint Submission” with Malaysia relating to the “southern part” of the South China Sea. Both submissions prompted China to protest and to reiterate its claims in the South China Sea. On a more positive note, the Government-level delegations dealing with territorial issues met in 2009 on two occasions. Vietnam also protested against the Chinese arrest of Vietnamese fishermen on several occasions in 2009, and also in 2010. Furthermore, Chinese fishing bans led to Vietnamese protest in 2009 and 2010. In response to the heightened tension, the Prime Ministers of the two countries held talks in Hanoi in October 2010 and decided to “seek satisfactory solutions to existing issues relating to” the South China Sea.

Open differences relating to activities in the South China Sea continued during the first half of 2011. Two more serious incidents on 26 May and 9 June were related to Vietnamese oil exploration activities in areas of overlapping maritime claims. Vietnam accused China of cutting the cables of the explorations ships operated by Vietnam, while China accused Vietnam of illegal activities within an area under its jurisdiction. In connection with the incidents Vietnam explicitly rejected China’s claim within the “nine-dashed lines” in the South China Sea.

After this public display of differences and tension, the two countries took action to reduce the level of tension. Two significant developments took place in October 2011: an “Agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues” was signed in Beijing on 11 October; and the first high-level summit since 2008 took place on 11-15 October when Vietnam’s Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Tong visited China.

The Agreement on basic principles states that the government-level delegations of both countries “agree that the satisfactory settlement of sea-related issues between Vietnam and China is suitable for the basic interests and common aspirations of the two countries’ people and helpful for regional peace, stability, co-operation and development.” They also agreed on the six-point principles for resolving sea-related issues.

A Joint Statement was issued in connection with the high-level summit. Considerable attention was devoted to maritime issues. The two countries stressed their political will and determination to settle disputes through friendly negotiation and talks to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea. They agreed to speed up negotiations on the sea issues and to seek basic and long-term solutions acceptable to both sides. Regarding negotiation on areas beyond the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin, both delimitation and “co-operation for mutual development” are emphasized.

In February 2012, Vietnam and China’s Deputy Foreign Ministers held talks in Beijing. They agreed to establish working groups at the department level to negotiate on the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. They also agreed to set up working groups to co-operate in “less sensitive sea domains.” Finally, they agreed to launch a hotline between the two foreign ministries. The hotline was opened on 2 March. Two rounds of talks at the department level were held to negotiate on areas outside the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. Two rounds of talks were also held in 2012 to discuss “co-operation in less sensitive fields at sea.”

Despite these positive developments, differences relating to the South China Sea have prevailed. This can be seen from official Vietnamese complaints in response to China’s fishing ban, to the arrest of Vietnamese fishermen, to the opening up of blocks for oil concessions in the South China Sea, to Chinese activities relating to the establishment of the city of Sansha, and to an incident in late November in which Vietnam claimed that Chinese fishing boats had “blocked” and “severed” the cable of a Vietnamese seismic survey vessel in its continental shelf and EEZ. China’s main complaint was in response to Vietnam’s adoption of its Law of the Sea.

Observations

The most evident feature relating to China-Vietnam relations and their management of the territorial disputes is that there are established forms of dialogues and talks from high-level down to expert-level to address differences and tensions. The structure of talks has been continuously developed since the early 1990s, and the two sides have agreed on mechanisms and principles to better handle and manage their differences.

China and Vietnam’s response to the deep tension in 2011 was to reach an Agreement on basic principles, and both sides took steps to implement the Agreement in 2012. In addition, the two countries held the first post-2008 high-level summit in October 2011 and the South China Sea issues were directly addressed at the summit.

However, continued efforts are needed. The successful completion of the negotiations on the delimitation of areas outside the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin is important. An interim approach could be a bilateral joint development arrangement. The continued implementation of the fishery agreement is essential. The collaboration relating to the maintenance of order in the Gulf of Tonkin through joint-patrols needs to be expanded. In the South China Sea, it is essential to avoid future confrontation, not only for bilateral relations but also for the stability in the region. It is also necessary to move both bilateral and regional conflict management process forward.

At the bilateral level, the 2011 Agreement on basic principles has enhanced the mechanisms for the management of sea-related issues through a de facto bilateral ‘code of conduct.’ The High-level Summit of October 2011 signaled a renewed high-level push for better management of such issues. The combination of these two factors has created more conducive conditions to manage disputes and to reduce tension between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

One issue that remains to be addressed is the lack of mutual agreement on the scope of talks on the South China Sea. Only the Spratlys is on the agenda. If China and Vietnam could agree on the scope and the issues that are disputed it would be an important step forward, as this would create a realistic agenda for expert-level talks. This should not be interpreted as an argument that either side should abandon their sovereignty claims, but rather that they should recognize that they have overlapping claims that needs to be addressed.

At the regional level, both countries are parties to the DOC. They can positively contribute to the successful implementation of the DOC and also contribute to the process of further developing the conflict management mechanisms needed to maintain stability and avoid tension and confrontation in the South China Sea. A possible future regional “code of conduct” applicable to the South China Sea within the framework of the ASEAN-China dialogue could contribute to such a development.

Ramses Amer is PhD and Associate Professor in Peace and Conflict Research, Visiting Senior Fellow, Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Li Jianwei is Director and Research Fellow at Research Division III, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, Haikou, Hainan, China and Visiting Fellow of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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