Despite Hanoi's hedging strategy, it must settle disputes with China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2014, 5:23am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2014, 5:23am

A friendly neighbourhood is one in which people communicate effectively and take care not to cause disputes. If things do not work out, there is always the option of moving elsewhere. But countries do not have that option, as President Xi Jinping pointed out when meeting Vietnamese envoy Le Hong Anh last week. As he indicated, their only choice was to be on friendly terms and to settle differences amicably.

Often tense relations boiled over in May when a Chinese oil rig was moved into South China Sea waters that Vietnam claims are part of its exclusive economic zone. Rival fleets of boats clashed and protests in Hanoi turned into riots that left five Chinese dead when factories were looted and burned. State Councillor Yang Jiechi visited Hanoi and met Vietnamese leaders in June and the rig was moved out last month, but relations have remained frosty. The fence-mending effort by Anh, a Vietnamese Communist Party Politburo member, has seemingly been more fruitful, in part due to Vietnam expressing regret for the unrest and offering to compensate affected firms and hundreds of Chinese workers.

A meeting with Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan ironed out an agreement under which the sides will avoid exacerbating territorial disputes, return to defence and trade negotiations, and adhere to guidelines formulated in October 2011. The earlier pact set up biannual border negotiations, called for study of joint exploration of South China Sea resources and established a hotline in case of maritime emergencies. Such progress is promising, but does not dispel mistrust. Vietnam is irked by China's military rise and is seeking ties with India and former enemy the US; four American senators have visited since May, heightening speculation that Congress could soon lift an arms embargo.

But whatever Hanoi's hedging strategy, it still has to maintain good relations with China, its biggest trading partner. Keeping ties on an even keel will also boost China's image. As neighbours, they have to settle disputes and work together.