Hanoi and Beijing have pledged to try and get their bilateral ties back on an even keel after China’s placing of an oil rig in Vietnamese waters sparked off deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam a few months ago.
On May 2 this year China deployed an oil rig in Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
It sent Sino-Vietnamese ties plunging to their lowest point in decades and triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels of both countries at sea.
At the height of the tension, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a top diplomat who outranks the foreign minister, arrived in Hanoi in mid-June to engage in talks with Vietnam's top leaders. The trip delivered little.
But China withdrew the rig in mid-July.
Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties, exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits.
During Yang’s second visit to Vietnam Monday, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh told him that Vietnam “has always attached importance to the comprehensive strategic partnership with China.”
He said the two sides should effectively implement agreements reached during the visit to China last August by Le Hong Anh, the special envoy of Vietnamese Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, to "properly manage maritime differences and refrain from actions that complicate the status quo,” according to a statement released Monday by the Vietnamese foreign ministry.
A statement by the Chinese foreign ministry quoted Yang, who also met with President Truong Tan Sang and Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong on Monday, as saying: "At present, Sino-Vietnam relations are at a crucial stage of improvement and development."
The two countries agreed to be in close touch to handle problems arising from border control, saying appropriately handling the maritime problem, such as the demarcation of the Gulf of Tonkin, plays a significant role in bilateral ties.
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dash line -- a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international experts. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The oil rig row has caused Vietnam's leadership to ramp up economic and strategic engagement with the US and its treaty ally Japan, which is itself embroiled in a dispute with China over a cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
But Beijing remains Hanoi's most vital trade partner.
Vietnam’s total trade with China hit US$50 billion last year, almost twice the $27 billion in 2010. Last year Vietnam exported $7.95 billion worth of garment and textile products but imported raw materials worth $4.8 billion for the industry, much of that from China. That means even Vietnam's strongest industry is highly reliant on China.
In August, a month after China withdrew the oil rig, Le Hong Anh, a Politburo member who heads the Communist Party’s Central Committee Secretariat, traveled to China as the special envoy of Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong. Following talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Anh, the two countries said they were committed to negotiating maritime disputes to avoid a recurrence of tensions.
During his visit to Vietnam last June Yang and Minh shook hands in front of reporters without smiling. But on Monday smiles and warm handshakes were seen as the two top diplomats met again.
Analysts say it appears that Beijing wants to reduce tensions for the time being.
But "there is no indication that this signals any change in China’s long-term goal of control over substantially all disputed waters in the [East] Sea over Vietnam’s objections,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Thanh Nien News.
In recent months China has cranked up a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago in the East Sea. Beijing said in August it planned to build lighthouses on five islets, two of them the in Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago, also in the East Sea.
Vietnam has vehemently objected to these moves, saying it has incontestable sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa islands.
On October 23 Vietnam again lambasted China for its illegal building of an airport on Fiery Cross Reef in Truong Sa and its support for Taiwan’s deployment of armed ships on Ba Binh (Itu Aba) Island, also in Truong Sa.
On October 9 Hanoi condemned Beijing after the latter completed a runway for military aircraft stretching across Woody Island in Hoang Sa.
Several analysts say Yang’s Monday visit to Vietnam is more likely to be associated with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit starting Saturday in Beijing.
“Given all that has happened in the [East] Sea this year, Beijing is worried that any embarrassment or diplomatic quibble will create major humiliation and problems for China as a country. Therefore, everyone is working to ensure the APEC will happen without major incidents,” said Yun Sun, a China security policy expert with the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
"Of course they understand one trip by Yang will not solve Vietnam's concern or the territorial disputes. However, in the short term, it will help to make things smooth for Beijing during the summit," she said.
“And that is the most immediate priority for China, and its diplomats.”