Recent diplomatic efforts to improve relations between China and its neighbours, which have been strained by disputes over the South China Sea, suggest that Beijing is taking a more conciliatory approach to resolving the tensions.
Diplomatic and military relations with Vietnam and the Philippines have been aided by a series of high-level visits in the last two weeks. President Hu Jintao and Philippine President Benigno Aquino met on August 31 in Beijing and reaffirmed a commitment to peacefully solving territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Defence Minister Liang Guanglie on August 29 met Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh to pave the way for a visit to China later this year by Vietnam's new leader, Nguyen Phu Trong.
And last week, China's top diplomat, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, visited Hanoi to meet Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan. The two jointly chaired an annual steering committee on bilateral relations and discussed strategic and critical issues. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said Beijing would work with Hanoi to keep bilateral relations on the right track.
Xu Guangyu, a retired major general in the People's Liberation Army, said that Beijing would not let its relations with Vietnam and the Philippines deteriorate.
'Despite a series of anti-Chinese protests and an anti-Chinese-sentiment movement inside Vietnam and the Philippines over the past three months, Beijing realises that any conflicts with our neighbours would not only harm regional security, but would also hurt our economic development, and that will only benefit a third party,' Xu said, declining to identify the third party.
'It is because there is a strong voice in the international community to deter China's rise.'
Professor Wang Hanling, an expert on maritime affairs and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said the 'third party' is the United States.
'The US has been there; it has never left Asia,' Wang said. 'Beijing knows this very well and realises that it [Washington] would use the South China Sea dispute to deter China's rise.
'But China also realises that, compared with the stability of Southeast Asia and the mutual economic benefits between China and its neighbours, the South China Sea territorial dispute is not a big problem.'
Wang said Beijing's first priority would be maintaining good relations with all neighbouring countries involved in the sea disputes, because the complicated issue cannot be resolved in the short term.
'Tensions in the South China Sea disputes should be put under control, not allowed to escalate, as that would only harm the economic development and regional security of Southeast Asia,' he said. 'Beijing also reminded our neighbours that we share the same culture and history, especially in that we have all been invaded by Western countries in the last century.'
Wang said China had suggested that Vietnam, the Philippines and others take measures to prevent the sea disputes from escalating.
He noted that China has made such efforts before, like the economic aid it gave to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown in 2008.
'China has never stopped providing help to our Asean friends. We also encourage those countries involved in the water disputes to work with us in maritime protection, scientific research, maritime search and rescue, as well as other non-sensitive areas,' Wang said. 'That's why China can now bring Vietnam and the Philippines back to the negotiating table again.'
Dr Zhang Mingliang, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Guangzhou's Jinan University, said Beijing has to keep good diplomatic and military relations with Hanoi and Manila, especially during sensitive times such as the recent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, due to China's 'embarrassing role' in the South China Sea disputes.
'Unlike Sino-US relations, which have been suspended several times in the past two decades, we can't easily cut off our ties with Vietnam and the Philippines,' Zhang said. 'Compared with Vietnam and the Philippines, China is too huge. If Beijing is too vocal [on the water dispute], it will scare the smaller countries and push them to seek help from the US.'
Highlighted by a US naval ship's recent visit to Cam Ranh Bay for the first time in 38 years, Vietnamese-US ties appear to be strengthening. The countries last month signed a statement of intent on developing military medical ties. 'It's so easy for Vietnam to stand on the US side, because Washington is too important to Hanoi,' Zhang said.
Zhang also pointed out that Sino-Vietnamese trade reached US$30 billion last year, but 90 per cent of that was spent by Vietnam on importing Chinese goods, creating a large trade deficit between the nations.
'However, the US can give Vietnam many hi-tech products and technologies, and China is incapable of doing that,' he said, also noting that a large number of Vietnamese immigrants living in the US send the money they earn there back home, which could help Hanoi buy more high-tech goods from the US.
'That's why Beijing should keep relations with Hanoi good - to prevent it from getting too close to the US,' Zhang said.