Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Brothers in Trouble: China-Vietnam Territorial Disputes and Their Bilateral Approach to Conflict Management

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Brothers in Trouble: China-Vietnam Territorial Disputes and Their Bilateral Approach to Conflict Management

Article excerpt

1.Introduction

Since establishing themselves as independent sovereign states in the wake of World War II, China and Vietnam have been plagued with a number of territorial disputes against each other due to long and commonly shared land borders, contested islets and other maritime features, undetermined sea boundaries, and historical baggage in their own bilateral relations. These disputes can be grouped into two categories: (1) disputes over SinoVietnamese borderlands and the Gulf of Tonkin; and (2) disputes in the South China Sea (SCS).

The first category of disputes was brought to an end after the two states reached the Agreement on Gulf of Tonkin Maritime Boundary Delimitation in 2000 and completed a joint land border demarcation in December 2008. These significant achievements of dispute settlement were the results of the willingness and effort of the two ruling communist parties, whose brotherly mutual relationship can be considered to have provided stability in the management of the bilateral disputes. During the long-standing management processes, the two states actively promoted what may be called a "SinoVietnamese Way of conflict management", characterized by mutual respect and accommodation. Its significance lay in jointly taking measures to avoid escalating tensions while also maintaining and deepening their well-known "comradely and brotherly friendship". In doing so, the conflicts were effectively resolved without resorting to force or third party involvement.

However, recently raised frictions in SCS disputes, where China and Vietnam claim by far the largest overlapping waters of the sea among the claiming countries, show that the second category of disputes is much more complicated and intractable than the first one, rendering itself to be one of the flashpoints in the Asian-Pacific region. Early tensions spiked in the SCS when the two countries waged short battles against each other in 1974 and 1988, resulting in China's control over the whole Paracel Islands and several strategically important maritime features in the Spratly Islands. Since then, the bilateral naval tensions had eased for almost two decades (1990-2007). In recent years, however, the tensions have been on the rise again, especially since 2010 when the U.S. began to intervene into the affairs of the SCS. The recent maritime flare-ups between China and Vietnam have damaged the bilateral ties of the two communist neighbours to a considerable degree. Thus, two significant questions can be asked: Why was the Sino-Vietnamese joint approach able to reduce tensions and contribute to resolving the disputes in the first category, but not sufficiently in the second? How has this difference in outcomes arisen?

What is interesting about the management of the second category in particular is the fact that despite stand-offs, protests and incompatible positions between China and Vietnam, their inter-party relations have remained unbroken, marked among others by Secretary-General of the Communist Party and President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping's state visit to Hanoi in August 2015. This was an occasion when the two state leaders reached a wide consensus on reinforcing their traditional "lips and teeth" relations, and reiterated that the futures of the two countries were highly intertwined under the socialist cause (Xinhua News, 2015). On the other hand, recent developments such as the deepening U.S.-Vietnam relationship (Vuving, 2015), the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou 981 incident,1 China's land reclamation activities in the waters of the Spratly Islands since early 2014, and alleged militarization of the SCS (Gady, 2016) reflect that relations between Beijing and Hanoi have become more complicated and ambiguous these days. In this respect, a few more specific questions about the second category of the bilateral disputes are due: How have China and Vietnam been responding to the on-going disputes in the SCS, which are fraught with the above-mentioned tensions and challenges? …

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