Border stones can point way forward
On many levels, the Sino-Vietnamese border is no place for the faint-hearted.
A 1,350km arc that traverses jungle and mountains, it stretches from the Gulf of Tonkin to a high mountain pass in Yunnan where the borders of China, Laos and Vietnam intersect.
Recent decades have seen it plagued by war, smuggling and simmering tensions between Beijing and Hanoi. It stands as a symbol of ancient and lingering suspicions but also of the promise of peace between two nations whose relationship is one of the most complex in the region.
Improved cross-border highways and railways are opening up new areas of poor northern Vietnam to investment and trade.
Fed up with the high cost of flights between Hong Kong and Hanoi, the most expensive short haul leg in the region? One day you may be able to drive there.
In one very obvious way, too, the border serves as a barometer of the wider relationship. By the end of the year, both sides hope to complete the placing of marker stones along its route. The effort, started after a border demarcation agreement in late 1999, has been a drawn out affair. More than 90 per cent has been completed, but the last few stones are among the most sensitive and prone to dispute.
Officials on both sides acknowledge that completing the physical marking to be an important step in helping to ease broader tensions. On the other hand, they privately warn it is far from clear whether their goal can be met.
A co-operation pact, struck during the visit to Beijing last month by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, included a pledge to finish the stones this year, but that may not be enough.
'Nothing is easy when it comes to the border,' said one Hanoi official. 'Nothing ... it represents so many of the things that still stand between us.'
The demarcation agreement itself was a 25 year effort, still a secret in both countries. Rumours Hanoi had been forced to sell out to Beijing and hand over land sparked intense internal debate among Vietnamese Communist Party cadres.
For all the hope the border engenders, its completion comes after another tough year in the relationship. On the one hand, continued progress is being made on the economic front as well fraternal ties between the two ruling communist parties.
On the other, Vietnamese officials fear what they claim is intensifying espionage, pointing to the loss of maritime strategy documents to Beijing. More publicly, Hanoi has complained about China's warnings to oil giants to pull out of exploration deals off its southern coast, saying they infringed its sovereignty. Then there was the posting on mainland websites of so-called 'invasion plans' of the country. An absurd concept, perhaps, but enough to rattle Hanoi's military elites.
Across the South China Sea, where both nations continue to dispute ownership of the strategic and potentially mineral rich Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes, rival navies and fishing fleets continue to eye each other warily.
The joint statement forged in Beijing acknowledged the need for 'basic and lasting' solutions but offered few specifics. The Chinese warship Zheng He's visit to Danang last week was conspicuous by its absence in the tightly controlled Vietnamese media to avoid stirring up nationalist sentiment.
In such an atmosphere, the symbolism of border stones should not be underestimated. Next February will mark the 30th anniversary of China's cross border invasion - ordered by Deng Xiaoping to 'teach Vietnam a lesson' for its invasion of Cambodia to drive the Beijing-aligned Khmer Rouge from power.
It was a brief but awfully bloody affair that left tens of thousands of casualties. Finishing the border will help ensure both sides can look forward, rather than back, when the moment comes.