HANOI – IN a step to resolving long-running disputes, China and Vietnam have pledged to turn contentious border areas into economic growth zones and jointly explore oil-rich offshore areas in the future.
The communist neighbours – who stress their comradely ties but also have a history of distrust and conflict – reached the agreement during a visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Beijing, state media said.
Both countries are among claimants to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves, and claim sovereignty over the Paracel islands, which are occupied by China.
During Mr Dung’s visit, which ended on Sunday, Beijing and Hanoi ‘agreed to start a joint survey in the waters outside the mouth of Beibu Bay (Gulf of Tonkin) at an early date,’ China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
They would ‘gradually advance the negotiations on demarcation of these maritime zones and will jointly exploit the zones’, Xinhua said.
The statement did not settle the hot-button issue of the Spratlys, a strategic string of rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea that are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
But China and Vietnam pledged to ‘collaborate on oceanic research, environmental protection, meteorological and hydrological forecasts, oil exploration and information exchanges by the two armed forces’.
The agreement, although vague on details and timelines, signals a gradual shift in relations between East Asia’s economic giant and the southern neighbour which for many centuries was ruled by China.
The South China Sea dispute – in which Chinese naval vessels have in the past fired on Vietnamese fishing boats – has in particular stirred strong nationalistic sentiments and sparked anti-Beijing street protests in Vietnam.
‘The China-Vietnam joint declaration is a major confidence building measure between two potential protagonists,’ said veteran Vietnam-watcher Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
‘The agreement to begin work on demarcating waters outside the Tonkin Gulf will serve to reduce the area where clashes between fishermen and naval vessels are likely to occur,’ he told AFP.
Earlier this year Beijing angered Hanoi when it reportedly warned US oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp that it would be barred from operating in China unless it pulled out of a joint exploration deal with Vietnam.
Last week Mr Dung and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao oversaw the signing of a strategic cooperation pact between state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp and PetroVietnam, reports said without giving further details.
Both countries also reaffirmed they would complete demarcation of their 1,350-kilometre land border on schedule by the end of this year.
As recently as 1979 China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in the mountainous region when China, having backed Hanoi during the Vietnam war, sought to punish Vietnam for ousting Cambodia’s China-backed Khmer Rouge.
Under both countries’ plans, Vietnam’s north is set to be transformed with industrial projects and new road and rail links that would connect China’s Yunnan and Guangxi provinces with Vietnam’s Haiphong seaport.
The ‘economic corridors’ – part of a web of highways linking China with Southeast Asia – would help boost annual two-way trade to a targeted US$25 billion (S$37 billion) by 2010 from US$16 billion last year.
Mr Dung also visited China’s Hainan province and proposed closer shipping links with Vietnam. Other deals included a US$200-million joint industrial zone in Haiphong and a light-rail project in the capital Hanoi.
Mr Thayer said the agreement ‘to proceed positively in contentious areas is a positive contribution to peace and security in the region’,
‘Both Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung have demonstrated statesmanship in these troubled times by not letting the rancour of nationalism trump economic development,’ he said. — AFP