Lull in tensions as Hanoi ponders next move

The foreign ministers talks conciliation while the military buildup continues. Photo courtesy Reuter

China and Vietnam are making another attempt to smooth over their confrontation in the South China Sea, as Vietnam prepares to host President Xi Jinping and other world leaders for the APEC summit next week.

China’s foreign ministry says the two sides have reached agreement on managing their dispute through friendly talks.

“They reached an important consensus.. both sides will uphold the principle of friendly consultations and dialogue to jointly manage and control maritime disputes,” said a Chinese official following high level talks in Hanoi and Beijing.

The latest bid to ease tensions comes as both sides continue to strengthen their positions on disputed islands in the Spratly and Paracel chains.

One imminent potential flashpoint is Vietnam’s plan for a major gas drilling project off its central coast. It has indicated it could give the green light for the “Blue Whale” project this month, a move expected to provoke an angry response from China.

Claim invalidated

Vietnam’s Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh, seemed somewhat less effusive in his comments about the meeting in Hanoi with his opposite number, Wang Yi.

He said the two sides should resolve their disputes based on common sense and international law.

China’s attitude towards international law was illustrated last year, when it rejected a ruling at The Hague that invalidated its historic claim to much of the South China Sea.

Satellite pictures have shown that China is continuing work on military bases in the Paracels and Spratlys, while Vietnam is also working on an airfield on its main outpost in the Spratlys.

Anger flared up in the summer over their conflicting claims, with the two sides cancelling high level meetings.

China was reported at one point to have threatened military action. Whatever the nature of the threat, Hanoi caved in to Chinese pressure and cancelled work on a potentially lucrative gas field off Vietnam’s south-eastern coast.

China says that any drilling in disputed waters violates an understanding not to challenge the status quo.

Biggest obstacle

The visit of Donald Trump for APEC may be seen as an opportunity by Vietnam to initiate the “Blue Whale” project off the coast of Da Nang, in waters that are contested by China.

The project is led by the US oil giant, Exxon Mobil, where the current US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, formerly served as chief executive.

The Chinese foreign ministry again warned “countries outside the region” not to interfere.

But China increasingly sees Vietnam as the biggest obstacle to its strategy of consolidating its grip on the South China Sea.

Beijing seems keen to avoid military clashes, although it has signalled it could react if pushed too far.

The aim for now is to strengthen its military position on the ground, cement ever closer ties with Vietnam’s neighbours and exploit the confusion and inconsistencies in US policy.

At the same time, China will appeal to its “fraternal” ties with the Vietnamese Communist party, and try to convince it that resistance is useless given China’s relentless rise as a regional and global power.