Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been in Hanoi for talks with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh to discuss bilateral relations, with a particular emphasis on trade and a non-hostile resolution to the territory rights dispute in the South China Sea.
While The Philippines was once viewed as the ASEAN state most at-odds with China’s approach to the South China Sea, under President Rodrigo Duterte, an atmosphere of hostility as been transformed into a win-win cooperative model wherein Manila and Beijing are working on constitutive proposals for what Duterte calls “joint ownership” of previously disputed areas in the Sea. The agreements won’t mean the two states seeing eye-to-eye at all times, but it does mean that a dangerous and counterproductive atmosphere of hostility has been replaced with an atmosphere that prioritises mutual enrichment in the name of peace through prosperity.
Duterte’s move has led to the United States shifting its focus in the region to Vietnam in terms of encouraging Hanoi to escalate rather than moderate its disputes with Beijing. While recent months have seen the first docking of a US Aircraft Carrier in Vietnam since America’s deadly war of aggression against Hanoi which only ended in 1975, this same period has inversely seen China replace the United States as Vietnam’s number one destination for exports.
This dichotomy clearly illustrates that economic relations throughout the region are moving in directions that necessarily require good ASEAN-China relations, especially considering America’s increasingly protectionist trade policies under Donald Trump.
While Vietnam’s history of confrontation with China pre-dates the Sino-Soviet schism of the Cold War by multiple centuries, recent years have seen historic geopolitical rivals reach out to one another in order to create modern partnerships based on the win-win principles that have been aptly defined in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Thought. The most strident example of this is the new reality of Turkey turning to its historic foe Russia in order to form a manifold partnership in the fields of trade, security cooperation, energy and technological cooperation and cultural exchange. The contemporary Russo-Turkish partnership continues to grow.
For Vietnam, a similar challenge exists vis-a-vis China and consequently a Turkish style solution is not only applicable in terms of reconciling old differences, but moreover, a Duterte style solution for how to best cease hostilities in the South China Sea is readily available as a model for peace through prosperity, as it is already being pioneered by a fellow ASEAN nation.
There have been hopeful signs based on statements exchanged during the recent China-Vietnam bilateral meeting in Hanoi. According to Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi,
“Both sides should abide by the basic governing principles on resolving maritime issues. Both sides should not apply unilateral measures that would complicate the situation”.
According to a report from official Chinese news outlet Xinhua,
“China is ready to earnestly implement the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries so as to lift the China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership to a new level, Wang said.
Both sides should maintain high-level contacts, strengthen party-to-party exchanges, and enhance cooperation in defense, law enforcement and local governments, he added.
The Chinese state councilor urged the alignment of China’s Belt and Road Initiative with Vietnam’s “Two Corridors and One Economic Circle” plan, advance pragmatic cooperation in various fields, especially in infrastructure, industrial capacity and cross-border cooperation zone.
Both China and Vietnam should also boost cultural and people-to-people exchanges and properly manage their differences, he said.
For his part, Minh said maintaining and strengthening the traditional friendship between Vietnam and China is in the interests of both countries, which also contributes to regional peace and stability.
The Vietnamese side is willing to closely cooperate with China in actively implementing the consensus reached between leaders of the two countries, he said.
Both countries should give full play to the Vietnam-China Steering Committee for Cooperation, promote integration of the Belt and Road Initiative with the “Two Corridors and One Economic Circle” plan, push forward cooperation in various fields, and properly handle maritime issues, Minh added.
At a joint press conference with Minh held after the meeting, Wang said, “We agreed that our two countries are now at a crucial stage of vigorously advancing the causes of reform, renewal and opening up, with ever- increasing economic complementarity.”
Noting that the two-way trade between China and Vietnam topped 100 billion U.S. dollars last year, and personnel exchanges exceeded 10 million, he said these figures demonstrate the huge potential for cooperation between the two countries.
Wang called on the two sides to seize the rare opportunities brought about by the reform and development of the two countries which have now entered a new era, and upgrade the scale and quality of the bilateral practical cooperation.
The two also agreed that properly handling maritime issues is of vital importance to the smooth and healthy development of the bilateral relations.
Both sides pledged to earnestly implement all the regulations concerning the agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues existing between the two countries.
They also highlighted the importance of managing differences through consultations and refraining from taking unilateral actions that might complicate and escalate situations.
Both sides also agreed to boost maritime cooperation including exploring feasible ways of joint development.
Through such cooperation, they believed that both countries would create favorable conditions for the final solution of the maritime issues as well as a requisite environment for comprehensively promoting bilateral practical cooperation”.
These positive statements from both China and Vietnam indicate that a change is palpably in the air when it comes to the South China Sea. At a time when the DPRK is engaging in an historic rapprochement not only with South Korea but the wider world and when The Philippines under President Duterte continues to build new partnerships with fellow ASEAN members, China, Russia, India and others, it is becoming increasingly clear that a pan-ASEAN model for joint cooperation with China in the South China Sea could be the way forward.
Duterte’s role in bringing about a change of mentality throughout ASEAN to the vexed issue of the South China Sea cannot be overstated. In spite of historic ties with the United States and against the vocal opposition of Duterte’s domestic political rivals, he took it upon himself to engage in an historic rapprochement with China that the Chinese President has called a “golden era” of relations. If others, including and especially Vietnam follow a similar course of renouncing hostility and embracing the win-win model, it will further demonstrate that unlike his predecessors, Duterte has become a leader rather than a follower when it comes to making history in South East Asia.