China and Vietnam face a stiff new test in avoiding a showdown over undersea oil drilling after Beijing cut short a high-level meeting last week, but experts say the two sides will eventually patch things over.
Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission left early from a “defense border meeting” in Vietnam Thursday due to “working arrangements,” the official Xinhua News Agency in Beijing reported. Fan had met earlier in the week with Vietnam’s Communist Party general secretary, president and prime minister.
Neither side is saying officially whether something else led to the cancellation. Analysts who track Vietnam believe it comes down to a disputed South China Sea oil exploration tract in Vietnam’s hands as well as Hanoi’s recent contact with Chinese rivals Japan and the United States.
“Most analysts believe China was either sending Vietnam a signal about its deepening ties with the U.S. and Japan or pressing it to stop exploring for oil near China’s nine-dash line or maybe both,” said Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
China claims most of South China Sea
China claims more than 90 percent of the sea, citing a so-called “nine-dash” demarcation line, though a world arbitration court rejected the legal basis for that claim in 2016.
“Unless Hanoi reads the signal correctly and makes the changes China demands, we can expect Beijing to send more warning shots across Vietnam’s bow in the months to come,” Hiebert said.
Beijing claims to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea overlap Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone 370 kilometers off its east and south coasts.
Vietnam explores for oil
China probably pulled its general out of the talks to warn Vietnam about oil exploration at block 136, said Le Hong Hiep, research fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. The block lies southeast of mainland Vietnam and near a nine-dash line that China uses to mark its maritime claims stretching from Brunei and Malaysia past the Philippines to Taiwan.
Before cutting short his visit, the Chinese general told Vietnamese leaders the South China Sea islands had belonged to China “since ancient times,” Xinhua said. China uses historic usage as a basis for its maritime claims.
“From the Vietnamese perspective, it’s on the continental shelf of Vietnam and Vietnam has sovereign rights over that area, and furthermore after the ruling last year by the arbitral tribunal, China does not have any legitimate claim over that area,” Le said.
Other reasons for the general to leave
China probably bristled further when the Vietnamese prime minister met U.S. President Donald Trump in May and a group of Japanese politicians the following week. China resents Japan and the United States for offering military aid for Southeast Asian claimants to the disputed sea.
Oil exploration disputes have caused previous confrontations in the volatile China-Vietnam maritime rivalry, giving the latest disagreement a risky edge.
In 2011, Chinese vessels, in the same region in question today, cut a cable being placed underwater by a Vietnamese survey crew, the government in Hanoi said then. In 2014, vessels rammed one another as China’s chief offshore driller positioned an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam.
Disputes over maritime sovereignty led to deadly clashes between Vietnam and China in 1974 and 1988, as well.
Hanoi’s state-owned oil firm Petrovietnam says on its website that in 2013 it had signed a contract to explore for oil again at block 136.
“But China insists it’s still a disputed area and they believe that Vietnam is violating a common understanding between the leaderships of the two countries,” Le said. “In the background there is some resentment against Vietnam’s recent rapprochement with the U.S. and Japan as well, so I think there are a few things at work here.”
Vietnam will probably try to put aside the Chinese general’s sudden departure to get along with China, experts say.
“Vietnam cannot afford to have permanent antagonistic relations with China or to go out of their way to antagonize China because they have to sleep with their eyes open every night,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. China has the world’s third strongest armed forces after the United States and Russia.
Exchanges over border issues work for both sides, he added. “One, it’s a positive step, but two it also served propaganda functions for both sides to beam back into their country, to netizens who hate each other, cooperation of a positive nature.”
Vietnam and China stepped up dialogue after the world arbitration ruling. Border defense talks had been in place since 2013. Senior leaders also met in January to discuss maritime cooperation that could include a joint search for undersea oil or gas. Both countries also value the sea's fisheries.
China, for its part “has attached high importance to the development of military relations with Vietnam and is willing to join hands with the Vietnam side to further push forward the ties,” Xinhua quotes the Chinese general saying last week.
“Both countries know that they will have to continue to work towards finding a balance where they can both benefit economically and co-exist politically,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.