Military talks clear way for Vietnam's top leader

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2011, 12:00am

Top-level Sino-Vietnamese military meetings in Beijing this week appear to have cleared the path for a visit by Vietnam's new top leader, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, later this year.

The talks between Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh and Defence Minister Liang Guanglie and PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Ma Xiaotian had further eased tensions between Hanoi and Beijing, according to diplomats close to the discussions - even though there were no breakthroughs on the South China Sea territorial disputes that flared in recent months.

'The fundamental differences and suspicions remain but the immediate tensions have eased,' said a Beijing-based envoy. 'We can expect to see progress in other areas and a smooth visit by the Vietnamese general secretary at China's invitation.'

A Xinhua report following the Vinh-Liang meeting on Monday noted both sides had pledged to resolve South China Sea disputes through consultations and negotiations. It quoted Liang calling for stronger communication and consultation, and the prevention of 'outside provocation that could spoil the two countries' relations'. Vinh was quoted by Xinhua as saying the two nations should not allow any outside forces to spoil Vietnam-China relations by intervening in the disputes.

Vinh, formerly a key military intelligence official, has led Vietnam's military diplomacy over the past 18 months or so, successfully forcing South China Sea issues back on to the regional diplomatic agenda despite Beijing's concerns. Those moves have included an emerging strategic partnership with Hanoi's old enemy, Washington - military links being closely watched in Beijing - even as Vietnam and China have formally strengthened military ties. The pair signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2009.

Vietnam's state press quoted Vinh before he left for China as saying that he would be reasserting Vietnam's sovereignty over the South China Sea's disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands even as he tried to improve ties. Last night he was quoted as telling the Chinese that Hanoi was determined to stop anti-Chinese protests.

The fraternal yet historically suspicious Sino-Vietnamese relationship is increasingly scrutinised by regional envoys and analysts. Relations have degenerated amid repeated anti-Chinese street protests in Hanoi - now being reined in - and reports of fresh tensions on the China-Vietnam border and at sea. Meanwhile, Vietnamese-US ties have appeared to strengthen. A US naval ship recently visited Cam Ranh Bay for the first time in 38 years and a statement of intent to develop military medical ties was signed.

Professor Carl Thayer, of the Australian Defence Force Academy, said this week's diplomacy highlighted Vietnam's bid to 'compartmentalise' the South China Sea frictions: 'Tensions have markedly reduced.'



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