Vietnam, China seek peaceful, stable solutions to sea dispute

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C hinese President Xi Jinping (C-L) and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang (C-R) during the welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 19, 2013. The Vietnamese President is on a three-day visit to China. PHOTO: AFP

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang agreed with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday that it is crucial that the two countries settle their lingering sea dispute peacefully for the sake of maintaining stability in the region.

The rhetoric materialized as the two sides agreed to establish a hotline to resolve fishing incidents in the contested waters of the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea, as Sang began his three-day visit to China.

Sang and Chinese President Xi Jinping witnessed the signing of the agreement to set up the hotline between the two countries' agriculture ministers, along with nine other pacts, during a ceremony in Beijing.

Mark Valencia, and Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute, called the inception of the hotline "a small step forward." But he also told Vietweek that the hotline's effectiveness would depend on who answers the calls it receives.

"For high officials that can resolve incidents I am not sure that high fisheries enforcement officials have that authority they may just restate their national position and tell the other side to back off," he said.

China claims sovereignty over 80 percent of the East Sea, which has pitted it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines.

The waters, of which Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim portions of, are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar.

Vietnam has accused China of harassing or attacking Vietnamese fishing boats in the disputed waters while Beijing has urged Hanoi to better "educate" its fishermen to steer clear of Chinese waters.

Last month, Vietnam alleged that a Chinese vessel rammed into a Vietnamese trawler while it was fishing in the Paracel Islands, over which both countries claim sovereignty.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman dismissed the charges, saying relevant Chinese authorities had only carried out normal law enforcement procedures.

But Reuters reported that Xi took a more conciliatory line during his meeting with Sang Wednesday in Beijing's central Great Hall of the People, where the Vietnamese president was given full military honors at his welcome ceremony.

"China and Vietnam must both act in a spirit of responsibility towards history and their people, put the broader picture of Sino-Vietnam friendship and bilateral development first, make up their minds to push for a political resolution to the South China Sea issue and prevent it from affecting ties," Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

"What is crucial is maintaining stability and promoting cooperation," Xi, who became president in March, said, adding that China "needs a peaceful and stable neighboring environment."

Xi also reiterated China's position that the sea dispute must be resolved by direct talks between the claimant nations, rejecting the necessity of outside intervention.

China has perceived the US "pivot" towards the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region and its involvement in the dispute as an attempt to contain its rise.

China has also stepped up activity in the region, including establishing garrisons on some of the disputed islands, and accused Washington of trying to stir up trouble far from home, Reuters said.

Sang told Xi that Vietnam also wants to resolve their disputes through direct talks.

"The two countries have a traditionally deep friendship, and this is a treasure for the two peoples," Sang said.

There has been hope that some headway will be made on a maritime code of conduct between China and the 10 member countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In April, China agreed to begin talks with ASEAN on the code which is aimed at easing the tensions in the East Sea.

But analysts say while this is a welcome development, details are sketchy.

"We do not know when the talks will begin and where they will take place," said Ian Storey, a maritime analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. 

"Moreover, given the complexities of the dispute the talks are likely to be prolonged, possibly lasting for several years," he said.

The sea dispute led to unprecedented rifts at an ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Cambodia last July, which ended for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history without a joint communiqué.

Since then analysts say ASEAN has still struggled to agree and produce a draft code that China will accept.

"The time for that is not yet ripe," Valencia said.

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