The president of Vietnam called for talks on competing claims to the South China Sea during a call with his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, according to Vietnamese state media.
As Beijing continued military drills near the Paracel Islands – which both countries claim – Nguyen Phu Trong suggested to Xi Jinping the two countries should “work together to address their existing problems, especially on maritime issues”, according to Vietnamese communist party newspaper Nhan Dan.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the two leaders stressed the need for cooperation over conflict.
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Xi said relations between the two countries, and the two ruling communist parties, had reached a “new historic starting point” this year, the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two organisations.
Xi also praised communist party leadership in the two countries, saying their mutual aid during the pandemic reflected comradely and brotherly friendship.
The Nhan Dan report quoted Trong as saying bilateral ties had been through “many ups and downs” over the 70 years.
Since the start of the week, China has launched military exercises in four maritime areas, including drills near the Paracels, known as the Xisha in China and the Hoang Sa in Vietnam.
The drills are one of a number that China has mounted near the islands this year, prompting multiple protests from Vietnam.
Collin Koh, research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said mixing military might with diplomatic gestures was typical of China’s approach to sea disputes with its neighbours.
“China is backing up talk with muscle flexing just to press home the point to Vietnam that it’s being outgunned and there’s nothing in Hanoi’s interest to try to do anything,” Koh said.
While the Chinese foreign ministry report on the Xi-Trong phone call did not mention maritime issues, the two leaders probably discussed the dispute, according to Zhuang Guotu, a Southeast Asia specialist from Xiamen University.
Vietnam has considered legal action against China in protest over its claims to the South China Sea.
In addition to the Paracels, Vietnam disputes China’s claims to the Spratly Islands, a point Hanoi’s representative drove home in March in a statement at the United Nations.
The Philippines successfully challenged Beijing’s sweeping South China Sea claims, winning an 2016 arbitration case before a tribunal at The Hague.
China refused to take part in the proceedings and a similar ruling in a case brought by Vietnam would likely make little difference to Beijing, Zhuang said.
“This issue between the two countries is so difficult that it could stop progress in bilateral ties, or even cause it to take steps back,” he said.
“While this issue is unavoidable, and unresolvable, the two sides are instead focusing on the other aspects of their relationship, their economic ties or other forms of cooperation, to keep the temperature of the maritime issues down.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- South China Sea: Chinese military holds drills near Paracel Islands for a third time this year
- South China Sea: Manila and Beijing agreed to shelve dispute, ambassador says – despite Duterte’s vow to uphold ruling
- South China Sea: does one-on-one mean a one-sided deal for Malaysia?
- China urges Vietnam to build on past agreements in South China Sea
This article South China Sea: Vietnam seeks talks on Paracel Islands dispute first appeared on South China Morning Post