China-Vietnam tensions 'likely to ease'

Fragile truce suggests Hanoi will not file lawsuit over sea dispute: Analysts

CHINA and Vietnam reached a fragile truce that should ease bilateral tensions, which escalated in May when a Chinese oil rig was parked in disputed waters and led Hanoi to consider taking the South China Sea dispute to an international court, say analysts.

But some also noted that the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vietnam's special envoy Le Hong Anh in Beijing on Wednesday did not yield any fundamental breakthroughs even though both sides expressed a desire to "restore" and "mend" ties.

Sino-Asean expert Li Jinming of Xiamen University believes that Mr Anh's visit and the conciliatory statements issued after his meetings with Chinese leaders suggest that Vietnam is taking the legal option off the table for now.

"Tempers have cooled in Hanoi and calm thinking has prevailed, with the realisation that there is too much at stake economically," Prof Li told The Straits Times.

"China and Vietnam, because they are both socialist countries, have long had a strong and close relationship," he added.

Mr Anh, a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party's Politburo, was sent to Beijing as a special envoy of party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. He is the most senior Vietnamese leader to visit China since May. China's placement of the rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands sparked a two- month stand-off, sea skirmishes between both sides and anti-Chinese riots that left four dead.

Beijing suspended a portion of bilateral ties, while Hanoi openly mulled over filing a lawsuit with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea against China, following in the footsteps of the Philippines, another claimant.

Analysts said a series of concessions and threats in the past few months paved the way for the high-profile truce.

China moved the oil rig from the disputed waters last month, a month ahead of schedule, saying that its work had been completed, but veteran Vietnam watcher David Koh noted that the withdrawal also took away the biggest obstacle preventing talks.

Vietnam compensated victims of the anti-Chinese riots and, at the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting in Myanmar earlier this month, did not endorse the Philippines' proposal to freeze all "provocative activities" in the troubled waters, media reports said.

At the same time, the pledge by some American senators to get the US government to lift a ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam gave China cause for concern that its communist neighbour would pivot towards the United States and Japan, noted observers.

But while official statements said both sides "promised to honour rules for maritime negotiations and renounced actions that may complicate or exaggerate disputes", Dr Koh said that this was "old wine in a new bottle".

"Nothing much has come up from this visit except that it showed that everyone is willing to work for peace. But the basic issue of sovereignty, whether the oil rig was indeed in Chinese or Vietnamese waters, whether China's action to explore the waters broke international law, there has been no movement on this."

Some observers largely see the status quo as unsustainable. Senior fellow Ian Storey at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore said part of the reason for Mr Anh's visit was to try and get China's assurance that it will not send another oil rig into the exclusive economic zone claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea.

"I am sure that no such assurance was given," he said.

"China seems determined to enforce its territorial claims and Vietnam is equally determined to enforce its own and resist China's encroachments. As neither side has changed course, future crises are inevitable."

rchang@sph.com.sg