Updated at 7:50 p.m. EST on 2012-04-03
Vietnam appears to be against resolving its long-running maritime dispute with China on a bilateral basis amid a new row between the two neighbors over fishermen detentions.
China has insisted that negotiations over disputed islands in the vast sea with its Southeast Asian neighbors be held on a bilateral basis in an apparent bid to avoid internationalizing the issue.
Vietnam's foreign minister Pham Binh Minh indicated on Monday while attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Hanoi was keen on adopting a multilateral approach to resolve its dispute with Beijing on their overlapping claims to territory in the South China Sea.
He replied with a loud and quick "No" and hastily cut short a question by RFA on whether Vietnam would continue trying to resolve the sea dispute with China on a bilateral basis.
He then said “… The problems must be solved through [the process of] peaceful negotiations based on international laws, the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the DOC [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea], and go forward to the COC [Code of Conduct]…”
China and its ASEAN neighbors last year signed a set of guidelines on conduct in the disputed South China Sea.
The guidelines marked a slight respite in tensions especially around the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains which are believed to be rich in natural resources.
The document adopted by Beijing and ASEAN sets out agreed measures to make their 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the contested South China Sea more binding.
Some view the document as a small but significant step towards reducing tensions in the South China Sea, claimed in its entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Some of the Southeast Asian states believe Beijing's bilateral approach to resolving the South China Sea issue is an attempt to freeze resource development in the area, while doing little to actually to settle the claims.
Vietnam and China have been holding bilateral talks on their territorial disputes but have not made any headway.
Vietnamese minister Minh's comment came amid new tensions between the two countries following the detention by China of 21 Vietnamese fishermen while fishing near the disputed Paracel Islands.
The Paracels—or Hoang Sa Islands in Vietnamese—have been controlled by China since 1974 but are claimed by Vietnam.
Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai met with Chinese Vice Premier Le Keqiang at a weekend forum in the southern Chinese province of Hainan and asked that the fishermen and their two vessels be “immediately and unconditionally” freed, according to a statement on the government website.
Beijing says the crew was fishing illegally.
Hanoi has said that the March 3 arrests "seriously violated Vietnam's sovereignty" and that China must stop its "hindrance of Vietnamese fishermen."
Beijing maintains that it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands in the South China Sea.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.