Vietnam fails to bring China into Paracels talks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 August, 2011, 12:00am


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Vietnam appears to have failed in its latest bid to convince China to open talks on their long-simmering territorial dispute over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

While an initial report from Vietnam's Foreign Ministry after the latest round of discussions on outstanding sea disputes with China stated that a 'preliminary consensus on some issues' had been reached, a later statement made clear the Paracels were not yet part of that consensus.

'The negotiations are still going on,' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said in a statement. 'Our position has been made clearly in many occasions that the Hoang Sa Archipelago [the Paracels] is part of the of the negotiations between Vietnam and China on sea issues.'

Chinese officials have yet to comment in detail on the talks - now in their eighth round - but its envoys and scholars have repeatedly made clear that China's occupation of the Paracels is not up for discussion as part of outstanding issues with Hanoi. The discussions between the two fraternal if mutually distrustful neighbours are discreet, but nonetheless are still being closely watched by a region increasingly focused on the South China Sea.

While it recently pledged co-operation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), including Vietnam, over the South China Sea, Beijing has long demanded that specific disputes be settled one to one rather than as part of a regional settlement, as advocated by Asean. Vietnam and its Asean counterparts - Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei - have claims on the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands. Only China and Vietnam claim the Spratlys in their entirety and are the sole claimants to the Paracels. Taipei's claims mirror those of Beijing's.

Hanoi has said it will negotiate directly with Beijing on specific bilateral disputes and more broadly when more countries are involved.

'Given everything that is happening, the fact that China and Vietnam are talking is significant and being very closely watched by the rest of us,' said one veteran Southeast Asian envoy. 'The problem is [that] they don't seem to be getting very far despite progress in the past.'

Since normalising ties in 1991, Beijing and Hanoi have successfully settled disputes over their mountainous 1,400-kilometre land border as well as the Tonkin Gulf. The last remaining issues relate to the mouth of Tonkin and the rest of the South China Sea, claimed in large part by China through its controversial nine-dotted line. The discussions are still in their infancy, technically setting a framework of guiding principles - and the Paracels are a key stumbling block as Beijing refuses to accept they are even in dispute.

'There is nothing to negotiate,' said Dr Wang Hanling, a scholar of maritime affairs and international law at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'China's sovereignty over the Paracels has never been in dispute and the Vietnamese have acknowledged this in the past. Discussions about co-operative efforts - resource protection, search and rescue and so on - are one thing, China's sovereignty is another.'