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Foreign Policy

Productive Consultations Between China and Vietnam

Dec 17, 2018
  • Luo Liang

    Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

According to the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, on November 6 and 7, 2018, the China-Vietnam working group for demarcation in waters outside the mouth of the Beibu Bay had their 10th round of negotiations in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, and the working group for consultation over maritime joint development held their 7th round of consultations. At the meetings, the working groups conducted in-depth exchanges on maritime demarcation and large-scale joint development in the South China Sea.

The Beibu Bay is a semi-closed sea encircled by the coast of China and Vietnam and China’s Hainan Island. The width of the 128,000 square kilometer sea ranges from 110 to 180 nautical miles. According to corresponding stipulations, as signatories of the United Nations Convention on The Law of The Sea, China and Vietnam, with both their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves overlapping in waters of the Beibu Bay, need to solve the problem through demarcation. Since they normalized relations in the beginning of the 1990s, China and Vietnam successfully demarcated maritime territories in the Beibu Bay on December 25, 2000, following the principle of giving the two roughly equal areas, forming China’s first maritime borderline. Since the beginning of the new century, judging from the volume of petroleum and gas reserves in the Beibu Bay as well as the progress of exploitation, it is an inevitable trend to go from “inside the Bay” to “outside the Bay mouth”.

Reviewing negotiations over demarcation outside mouth of the Beibu Bay

On October 11, 2011, China and Vietnam signed “Agreement on Basic Principles Guiding Resolution of Maritime Issues Between the People’s Republic of China and Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The Agreement calls for steadily proceeding with negotiations on demarcation outside the mouth of the Beibu Bay, and at the same time actively discussing joint development in the maritime area. For that purpose, the two parties set up the working groups, taking turns to host regular meetings of leaders of government negotiation groups, twice a year, as well as special meetings when necessary. Since May 2012, the mechanism has successfully held 10 rounds of consultations, with occasional interruptions thanks to the “unpleasant” maritime conflict between the two parties.

On October 13, 2013, during his visit to Vietnam, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated the Chinese side is willing to promote cooperation with Vietnam. What was particularly noteworthy was willingness to establish a working group for consultation about joint maritime exploitation, accelerate negotiations on demarcation outside the mouth of the Beibu Bay, and strive for substantial progress in joint exploitation in waters outside the Bay mouth. However, after 10 rounds of consultations, the only substantive outcome has been the field work for joint investigation of the maritime area outside the Bay mouth.

Why are negotiations are proceeding so slowly?

Consultations in the working group for work involving waters outside the Bay mouth has been without a breakthrough mainly because of the following factors.

First, worldwide maritime demarcation usually involves territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and in maritime rights and interests the most “thorny” are issues concerning petroleum and gas as well as fishing resources, thus successful cases of demarcation all entail a long process. Therefore, in maritime demarcation both parties need to give full consideration to its complexity, and maintain sufficient patience and confidence, the Vietnamese side’s hope for the Chinese side to come up with a timetable soon is unrealistic, and reaching a consensus on basic elements of demarcation is an important basis and critical step for negotiations.

Second, major divergences between China and Vietnam are mainly over the sequence of “joint investigation, joint development, maritime demarcation”, and the two parties have been bogged down in a “seesaw battle.” Generally speaking, joint maritime investigation is a low-sensitivity area of cooperation, as it faces the least obstruction, is the easiest to operate, and often promises the best outcomes. After seven rounds of consultations between the working groups and three rounds by the technological experts group for joint investigation of the outside-Bay-mouth area, it took the two parties four months to complete their joint investigation of the area outside the Bay mouth in April 2016. The gravity of divergences has thus shifted to the sequence of joint development and maritime demarcation. The Vietnamese side advocates that demarcation should precede joint development. Yet, according to the Convention and practices of relative countries, joint development is a temporary and transitional arrangement prior to demarcation in disputed areas, it is more reasonable to put joint development before maritime demarcation. As to petroleum and gas resources, the Vietnamese side claims precedents of joint exploitation exist in the Beibu Bay, but they are essentially a kind of “cooperative exploitation” tailored to the peculiar structure of petroleum and gas reserves in the Beibu Bay, which don’t qualify as joint development. In terms of fishing concerns, China and the Republic of Korea face the same problems, the ROK also insists fishing issues have nothing to do with demarcation, fishing concerns should be considered after demarcation is completed. But neither the ROK nor Vietnam should ignore that fishing is closely related to demarcation. Fishing involves the fishing population’s livelihoods as well as security and stability in related maritime areas. As fishing resources wither, fishing disputes have increased, in some cases even escalated into violent confrontation with law enforcement, and finally diplomatic issues to affect the big picture of bilateral cooperation.

Third, in the past few years, China-Vietnam maritime conflicts have become a “barometer” of bilateral relations, affecting the political atmosphere and progress of consultations. Especially in May 2014, bilateral dispute over oil rig 981 triggered violent riots in Vietnam, and bilateral relations rapidly dropped to a nadir. As a result, the 6th round of working group consultation, which had previously been scheduled for May, was postponed to December.

Looking back, China and Vietnam are immediate neighbors, have a lot in common in terms of culture, political systems and development paths, and have maintained communication mechanisms at different levels and through various channels. The success in land boundary demarcation and demarcation in the Beibu Bay also fully demonstrated both parties’ stance, willingness, and capability for resolving territorial disputes by peaceful means. Therefore, as long as both parties faithfully implement the consensuses between the two countries’ leaderships and the agreement on the basic principles guiding the resolution of maritime disputes in the spirit of properly handling maritime disputes via cooperation, collaborate closely, create necessary conditions for the fundamental and long-term solution of maritime issues, lay a solid foundation for joint development and demarcation negotiations, the consultations will certainly bear fruit early, and bring tangible benefits for the people of both nations.

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