A senior official of the Vietnamese Communist Party will spend two days in China starting Tuesday trying to repair bilateral ties shattered by an oil rig crisis that sparked deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam several months ago.
Le Hong Anh, a Politburo member who heads the Central Committee Secretariat, will travel to China as the special envoy of Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, according to a statement issued Monday by the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Central Committee is a powerful grouping of 175 senior Communist Party members; the 16-member Politburo is the Party's decision-making body.
Anh will visit China at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party.
According to the foreign ministry release, the visit was organized to “defuse the situation and prevent tense incidents like the recent standoffs from recurring.” The statement also said the trip would seek to bolster the healthy, stable and long-term development of relations between the two parties and states.
On May 2, China deployed an oil rig in Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, sending Sino-Vietnamese ties plunging toward their lowest point in decades and triggering two months of restrained skirmishes between coast guard vessels at sea.
China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Although the crisis appears over for the moment and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has demanded that China not send any more rigs into Vietnamese waters, most expect the rig will be back soon.
Analysts say such a scenario will force Vietnam's leadership to re-examine their policy towards their giant northern neighbor.
For most of the tense six-week standoff, Hanoi repeatedly requested talks with China. At the height of the tension, China’s 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. But the trip delivered little results.
With Anh's upcoming visit,“Vietnam certainly is seeking to improve bilateral ties with Beijing and it only makes sense to do so,” Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert with the City University of Hong Kong, told Thanh Nien News.
“At the very least the talks may help to clarify Hanoi’s strategic outlook,” he said. “The talks should also be welcomed to the extent that they can reduce tensions between the two capitals and begin to repair what should be a relationship based on mutual respect, trust, and healthy economic ties.”
A shift in tone
China's bold incursion into Vietnamese waters set off peaceful anti-China protests that erupted into violence in central and southern Vietnam in mid-May. Rioters torched, looted and vandalized hundreds of foreign-owned factories.
The violence racked up millions of dollars in losses and claimed the lives of three Chinese nationals. Taiwanese businesses, mistaken for being Chinese, suffered the worst. Taipei claims at least 200 factories were looted or burned down in the riots. Around 3,000 Chinese workers subsequently fled Vietnam.
But the tone may be shifting.
Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in the Monday statement that Vietnam “regretted all the incidents that occurred to foreign-invested companies, including Chinese businesses and workers.” Vietnam also expressed regrets about the fatalities and injuries sustained by Chinese workers in the wake of the riots, Binh said.
Vietnam would offer humanitarian assistance to the affected Chinese workers and continue to compensate damaged firms to ensure their continued operations, Binh said. Hanoi would also send a delegation to China to express condolences to the representatives of the victims' families, he said.
After the violence, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asked cities and provinces to offer the affected companies up to two-year tax extensions as well as export and import tax cuts. He also ordered customs offices to clear items being held for unpaid taxes and called on local governments to reduce or withhold land rental fees for affected companies.
Over 1,000 people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the riots. Dozens have been tried and received jail terms of up to three years -- the rest received administrative fines. Others are still being tried.
In response to Vietnam's good will gesture, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei issued the following statement Monday: "China recognizes the work and attitude of the Vietnamese and hopes that Vietnam can earnestly implement the relevant measures."
‘Little wave on a large pond’?
The oil rig row moved 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 series of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Despite the evident shift in focus, Beijing remains Hanoi's most vital trade partner.
When General Martin Dempsey, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrapped up his Vietnam visit on August 16, he also made it crystal clear that Washington would not try to make Vietnam choose between China and the US.
“Because China's your neighbor, you have incredible economic almost interdependencies with China," Dempsey said.
Vietnam’s total trade with China hit US$50 billion in 2013, almost twice the $27 billion in trade reported in 2010.
In 2013, Vietnam exported $7.95 billion worth of garment and textile products but imported raw material worth $4.8 billion, much of that from China. That means even Vietnam's strongest economic sector is deeply reliant on China.
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line--a demarcation that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international geographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) --namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
But “after all the South China Sea isn't the end-all and indeed in the end Vietnam and China will always be neighbors,” said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based analyst.
“Sure neighbors quarrel but if the fundamentals are OK -- including Party to Party -- then this is but a little wave on a large pond,” he said.
"However little waves, if not dampened, can grow ever bigger and eventually erode relationships."