China-Vietnam Oilrig Crisis and Strategic Trust
Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales June 30, 2014 In October 2013 China’s Premier Le Keqiang made an important visit to Vietnam. Premier Li and his Vietnamese counterpart Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung discussed future cooperation across a wide number of areas and agreed to establish three working groups on on-shore cooperation, monetary cooperation and maritime cooperation. According to the Chinese news media a “breakthrough in bilateral cooperation” had taken place. The current flare up in tensions in the South China Sea, provoked by China’s deployment of a mega rig in disputed waters, raises serious questions about the failure to create strategic trust between Beijing and Hanoi. It should be recalled that bilateral relations between China and Vietnam have evolved substantially since they normalized relations in 1991. In 1999 the two countries successfully demarcated their land border and a year later they also reached agreement on delimiting the waters in the Gulf of Tonkin (Beibu Gulf). In 2000, China and Vietnam codified their bilateral relations in a Joint Statement for Comprehensive Cooperation in the New Century. This document created the framework for long-term state-to-state relations. China also signed similar agreement with all other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In 2006, Vietnam and China set up a Joint Steering Committee on Bilateral Cooperation at deputy prime ministerial level to coordinate all aspects of their relationship. This Joint Steering Committee has met regularly alternating its meetings between Beijing and Hanoi. In June 2008, following a summit of party leaders in Beijing, bilateral relations were officially raised to that of strategic partners, and a year later this was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea remained a major irritant in bilateral relations. In October 2011, in a major development, China and Vietnam signed an Agreement on Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement of Maritime-Related Issues in Beijing. Beijing and Hanoi committed themselves “to seek basic and long-standing solutions acceptable to both sides for sea-related disputes on the basis of international law” and to resolve their maritime disputes “through friendly talks and negotiations.” Pending the settlement of their disputes, China and Vietnam agreed to “actively discuss transitional and temporary measures that do not affect the stances and policies of the two sides, including studies and discussions on cooperation for mutual development.” In sum, it appeared that Hanoi and Beijing has succeeded in compartmentalizing their maritime territorial disputes from their larger bilateral relationship.