Vice President Xi Jinping, widely expected to helm the Chinese Communist Party next year, concluded a three-day visit to Vietnam Thursday to repair ties damaged by a dispute over territory in the South China Sea.
Xi met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in the capital Hanoi and drew out a plan for increased cooperation between the two nations.
He listed three priorities for bilateral relations—to better coordinate economic development policies, expand trade, and step up joint infrastructure projects.
The vice president also proposed a target for the two nations to double annual cross-border trade to U.S. $60 billion by 2015, from U.S. $30 billion last year.
Xi’s trip to Hanoi “further consolidates and promotes relations between the two parties, countries and people,” Vietnam’s government said in a statement posted on its website late on Wednesday.
Many see the high-level leader’s visit as an olive branch offering from Beijing, which is seeking to smooth over tensions that have erupted between the two nations since earlier this year due to competing claims in the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea.
“It’s China, I think, trying to recoup some lost political clout in Hanoi by sending a high-level leader to show that they still have an interest in Vietnam—it’s not just the South China Sea that’s at stake,” Carl Thayer, a Vietnam scholar at the University of New South Wales, told RFA.
But he acknowledged that the trip was also a way for Xi to set the stage for dealing with Vietnam on one of the most important issues facing the two nations in recent years.
“Xi Jinping is going to come into office finding that China’s diplomacy is in a bit of tatters in Southeast Asia because of the South China Sea,” he said.
Thayer said that as Vietnam and the Philippines had stood up to Beijing on the South China Sea issue, Xi may have wanted to “test the waters to see how far cooperative relations can be used, particularly the party-to-party ones, to try to get Vietnam to be less assertive.”
A long-running feud between Vietnam and China over the Spratly and Paracel islands left bilateral relations in shambles this year after Chinese boats harassed Vietnamese oil exploration vessels twice in May and June in waters Vietnam claimed were within its exclusive economic zone.
During the vice president’s visit "the Vietnamese side agreed to be ready, with China, to solve disputes through peaceful negotiation, respecting and paying attention to each other's legitimate benefits," the Vietnamese government statement said.
And China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that both nations "agreed to earnestly implement the consensus and the agreement in order to maintain stability in the South China Sea."
Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited China in October, reaching an agreement with his counterpart in Beijing to maintain frequent contact over maritime issues.
But in November, Vietnam's premier condemned China for using violence to take the Paracels from Vietnam in 1974 in front of the National Assembly, reaffirming the country’s claims over the island chain.
Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have laid claim to all or part of the disputed territories.
In July, China and its Southeast Asian neighbors agreed on a preliminary set of guidelines in the South China Sea. However, a wider accord on which country owns what in the vast waters claimed by several nations remains elusive.
Vietnam and China have held separate live-fire military exercises in the area after Hanoi accused Chinese ships of ramming one oil survey ship and cutting the exploration cables of another.
Vietnam also said sailors from China's navy had beaten the captain of a Vietnamese fishing boat and confiscated its catch.
The standoff sparked a wave of anti-China protests in Vietnam and warnings from Beijing to Vietnam not to try to involve the United States.
And in September, Indian officials said that an Indian naval vessel was confronted by an unidentified vessel saying it was from the Chinese navy in South China Sea waters off Vietnam in July.
Reports said the incident occurred in international waters shortly after India's amphibious assault ship INS Airavat completed a scheduled port call in Vietnam.
China has underlined its "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea, saying its claims stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from Beijing contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.
China has rejected calls by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members for arbitration by the U.N.'s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an independent judicial body set up by the Convention of the Law of the Sea, the global legislation covering all maritime territorial disputes.
It has also unveiled a map showing a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Reporting by RFA’s Vietnamese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.