ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
China and Vietnam patch things upBy David Swartzemtruber
On the surface it appears that China and Vietnam have patched things up in the South China Sea or as the Vietnamese call it, the East Sea, territorial dispute.
The official Xinhua news agency said Wednesday that the two countries had agreed to settle peacefully a dispute over maritime territory.
"Both sides should fully respect legal principles, take history and other relevant issues into consideration and accommodate each other's concerns in a constructive manner," according to Xinhua.
The neighboring countries agreed to establish a hotline and pledged to promote maritime cooperation.
China is Vietnam's largest trading partner but they have a long-standing dispute over sovereignty of the Paracel and Spratly island groups, which straddle vital commercial shipping lanes.
This past summer numerous anti-Chinese rallies sprung up in Vietnam when Chinese vessels twice interfered with Vietnamese oil survey ships inside the country's exclusive economic zone. Normally, the communist government of Vietnam does not allow political protests of any type.
Although the language of diplomacy makes this agreement sound rosy, don’t expect the sea dispute to slide off the radar anytime soon.
First, there are four other nations directly involved: Brunei, Malaysia and Philippines of Asean plus Taiwan. The current rapprochement between China and Vietnam could merely part of China’s stated policy of unilateral talks or a divide and conquer approach to settle the talks.
Two other countries, the United States and Japan, are indirectly involved and support a multilateral approach with all of the five countries and China meeting together to resolve the issue.
The essential issue not mentioned in the Xinhua story is “who owns what,” when it comes to the treasure trove of oil and gas said to be lying beneath the sea, or by what mechanism the territorial rights in the sea can be firmly established.
China’s relentless drive for energy to fuel its economy has been well reported. It must be a source of frustration to them that they cannot simple due as they wish in the sea, disregarding the interests of this group of smaller nations.
The current China-Vietnam agreement does little to deal with the tangible and volatile issue of who owns the oil and gas in the South China Sea. The conflicts in the sea are likely to continue until all parties agree to sit down at the table.
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