China and Vietnam have agreed to set up a working group to jointly explore their disputed waters in the South China Sea as the two nations vowed to move beyond the territorial row and enhance bilateral ties.
The agreement was announced after Premier Li Keqiang held talks with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, yesterday after arriving in Hanoi for a three-day visit, the last leg of a Southeast Asian tour.
The two leaders also witnessed the signing of 12 business deals aimed at boosting cooperation in trade, infrastructure, energy and maritime affairs.
At a joint press conference after the talks, Li said the two nations had achieved "a breakthrough" in enhancing their "comprehensive partnership and mutual trust" by establishing the working group concerning the joint exploration of the South China Sea.
Both nations aim to make "concrete progress" in jointly exploring the Gulf of Tonkin, a northern arm of the South China Sea, but no other details were released.
"The development tells the international community that China and Vietnam have the capability and wisdom to keep the South China Sea peaceful, expand their common interests and narrow their disputes," Li said.
The natural-resource-rich sea, which is claimed in part by mainland China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, has become a cause of friction between China and its maritime neighbours. Vietnam and the Philippines have taken the strongest stance against Beijing's assertiveness.
Dung yesterday described China as a "neighbour" and said the two nations had agreed to look for a long-term solution that is "acceptable to both sides" through friendly negotiations.
"For the time being, the two nations will proactively seek transitional solutions that will not affect the stance of either side on the issue," he added.
China has been spearheading the effort to seek joint exploration of the disputed waters as it strengthens its influence in Southeast Asia.
Professor Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University said the joint exploration agreement between China and Vietnam indicated that Beijing didn't want to see tensions over the territorial disputes continuing to flare up, because that would cause Beijing to lose leverage over its strategic rivals.
"Beijing sees that Vietnam may become part of the China containment policy of Japan and the United States," he said.
However, whether a similar agreement could be made between China and the Philippines was a big question, Su said, as Manila still stuck to a hardline approach towards Beijing.
In addition to the South China Sea agreement, the nations also vowed to boost annual bilateral trade to US$60 billion by 2015.
Li will visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum today, and have talks with President Truong Tan Sang, National Assembly chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung and Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.