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Beijing Seeks to Improve Relations with Hanoi

Beijing Seeks to Improve Relations with Hanoi

Chinese military officers gather at a hotel where foreign security officials are attending the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing, China, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. (talkVietnam)

Lately, it seems China’s aggressive foreign policy stance toward territorial disputes in the South China Sea is backfiring, especially in Vietnam. Last month, Vietnamese officials offered India two oil-exploration blocks in the disputed South China Sea waters, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, which drew strong condemnation from Beijing. In turn, India promised to sell Vietnam new naval patrol vessels under a $100 million credit line established last month. The announcements came during Vietnamese Prime Minster Nguyen Tan Dung’s two-day visit to India, where Dung met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two prime ministers concluded the meeting with a joint statement calling for freedom of navigation in the air and water of the South China Sea and for the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes using international law.

The day after the India-Vietnam announcements, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei stated in a press briefing, “Any lawful oil exploration activity in the South China Sea is fine by us. But if such activity undermines sovereignty and interests of China, we are firmly opposed to this.” Beijing has always maintained its claim to over 90 percent of the South China Sea, and has sought to resolve its territorial disputes unilaterally, given its greater population, economic resources and military power, insisting disputes be settled through “dialogue and consultations by countries directly involved”.

Of course being a much smaller nation, Vietnam is courting as many friends as possible within and outside of the region. Japan promised in August to provide Vietnam with six vessels as part of a $5 million grant that will boost Hanoi’s maritime security patrol. The U.S. is also relaxing restrictions on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam, partially lifting the ban on lethal arms sales – the first U.S. sales will likely be used, unarmed Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion planes used for surveillance. Future weapons sales could include airborne systems as well as ships. Late last month, Hanoi hosted U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, promising closer cooperation between the two nations should Hanoi make additional progress on human rights.

Hanoi also angered Beijing earlier through its strong condemnation of Beijing’s completion of a runway on Woody Island in the Paracel island chain, which Vietnam refers to as Hoang Sa and which the Chinese call Xisha. Also last month, Hanoi condemned Beijing’s construction of an airport on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratley Island chain Vietnam calls Troung Sa and China refers to as Nansha. Earlier this year, Beijing drew worldwide condemnation for moving an offshore oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near the Paracels, which led to frequent clashes on the sea and violent protests throughout Vietnam in May.

Hanoi’s increasingly vocal stance regarding the disputes, coupled with its outreach effort to win allies in the region, may have been behind Beijing’s decision late last month to send its top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi (who outranks the foreign minister), to Hanoi to warm relations with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying informed a daily briefing that Yang’s trip was necessary to help repair the China-Vietnam relationship that “plunged into temporary difficulty over maritime issues.”

Among the decisions taken by the two diplomats was an agreement to “manage and control maritime disputes, not take any acts to complicate or expand the disagreement”. More specifically, China and Vietnam agreed to “properly use a border negotiation mechanism between the two governments to seek a basic, lasting resolution both sides can accept”, referring to the border dispute mechanism currently used to delineate claims in the Tonkin Gulf.

Yet some analysts are skeptical of Beijing ever relinquishing its claims over the South China Sea, and argue Yang’s visit was merely intended to soothe tensions and save face prior to last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting in Beijing.

The visit has certainly made it easier for Vietnam’s leadership, which faced pressure from nationalists to take a more aggressive stance toward its economic partner following the deployment of the Chinese oil rig, while attempting to quell anti-China unrest among Vietnamese citizens. Hanoi now appears in the driver’s seat, visiting and welcoming friends, and exchanging smiles and warm handshakes – in sharp contrast to Yang’s last visit in June, when Yang accused Vietnam of “hyping up” their dispute.

Indeed, many analysts believe Beijing is now changing strategy –  on Friday, China’s defense minister Chang Wanquan spoke of opening defense hotlines with its Southeast Asian neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines, at the Xiangshan security forum in Beijing.  Diplomats hope that after inflaming tensions with its neighbors in the East and South China Seas,  Beijing’s most recent conciliatory posture can be taken at face value.

Does this mark a new turn in Chinese foreign policy? A warming of ties between nations? The beginning of a potential face-saving delineation of borders applied across the South China Sea? Not likely. With all of its aggressive moves backfiring, Beijing is simply changing its tactics to a more peaceful approach for now. Yet Beijing will not begin to concede territory, as domestic unrest mounting at home makes it loathe to anger its nationalist fringe. We should safely assume this recent “warming” approach to foreign policy is just one of many experiments in Beijing’s foreign policy laboratory.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666