Top Chinese general cuts short Vietnam trip amid South China Sea tensions

Analysts say snub by top military man is sign of Beijing’s frustration with Hanoi over its activities in disputed waters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 11:25pm

One of China’s top military leaders reportedly cut short his visit to Vietnam earlier this month, a move seen as the latest sign of Beijing’s anger about Vietnamese activity in the South China Sea.

General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, met with senior officials in Vietnam on Sunday, as part of a trip that began on June 12 and also took him to Spain and Finland.

In Vietnam, Fan met Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Tran Dai Quang, Prime Minister Bguyen Xuan Phuc and Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich.

But a meeting about border defence was cancelled by the Chinese side “for reasons related to working arrangements”, the defence ministry said in a statement.

The first such meeting took place in 2014, and was part of attempts to build mutual trust to ease tensions over their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a press briefing on Thursday that those tensions had calmed down.

“We hope the countries involved can avoid complicating the situation by taking unilateral action in the disputed waters," he said.

Observers said the cancellation of the meeting reflected Beijing’s frustration with Hanoi's efforts to exploit oil reserves in disputed areas, and its moves closer to Japan.

China’s southern island of Hainan born out of Vietnam millions of years ago: study

Earlier this month, Japan’s coastguard and its Vietnamese counterpart had their first joint exercise. It simulated an operation to thwart illegal fishing in the South China Sea, and showed the two sides’ intentions to increase security cooperation.

Vietnam is also attempting to exploit oil deposits near the Spratly Islands, where a Chinese fishing boat rammed the cables from a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel in May 2011.

“One direct reason leading to the cutting short of Fan’s visit might be because Beijing sees Vietnam as breaking its promises about not exploiting oil in disputed areas in the South China Sea,” Wu Shicun, president of the Chinese-government-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said.

US delivers six coastal patrol boats to Vietnam coastguard

“Vietnam has also recently been engaging more with the United States and Japan.”

In his talk with Defence Minister Lich, Fan said China and Vietnam had to maintain communications to contain South China Sea tensions.

Beijing claims a large part of the disputed sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. An international tribunal ruling initiated by the Philippines rejected Beijing’s claims in the waters last June.

Officials contacts between China and the Philippines were severely affected after Manila took the dispute to the tribunal. But ties between the two nations have improved since then.

Big rise in the number of Chinese tourists to Vietnam

Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs specialist from Jinan University, said the cancellation of the meeting earlier this month might further strain the ties between the two nations.

“It will hurt bilateral relations, erode mutual trust and make the two countries more suspicious of each other,” Zhang said. “Now China and Vietnam are in a paradox. On the official front, the two governments are pushing hard to build better relations, but unofficially people in both countries are holding an increasingly negative attitude towards each other.”