Hanoi – The top diplomats of Vietnam and China on Wednesday pledged to strengthen relations despite territorial conflicts over the South China Sea.
As current chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam would “do our best to strengthen strategic relations between ASEAN and China generally, and between Vietnam and China in particular,” Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem told Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
Yang was in Hanoi to meet ASEAN foreign ministers and attend the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on Thursday and Friday.
Regular meetings would be held to move “stagnant issues” forward, Khiem said, including the dispute over maritime borders in the South China Sea.
“I can say the relations between two sides are heading for open opportunities,” Yang said. “We are ready to strengthen relations with Vietnam.”
Vietnam and China can look back on 60 years of diplomatic ties, but are in conflict over maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, in particular the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands.
Chinese patrols have seized dozens of Vietnamese fishing boats over the past two years, leading to repeated diplomatic protests.
Vietnam has attempted to persuade other ASEAN members with similar disputes to negotiate as a bloc, but China has insisted on dealing bilaterally.
“Vietnam doesn’t want to be pushed into the camp of being seen as confronting China,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian National Defence University.
The new approach was a “cooperative, rather than a confrontational, approach to conflict,” he said.
On Tuesday, ASEAN foreign ministers called for a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and eventually a Regional Code of Conduct.
Such a document would commit all signatories to respect the freedom of sea and air traffic movement in and above the South China Sea.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own, partly conflicting claims to the Spratly archipelago, as does non-ASEAN-member Taiwan. Vietnam also claims the Paracel islands further north.
The remaining ASEAN member countries are Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and Thailand.