China and Vietnam must strengthen their political ties, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Friday during a visit to Hanoi, despite rival territorial claims in the South China Sea stoking tensions between the neighbours.
“Vietnam and China need to cooperate with each other in a complicated world,” Xi told Vietnam’s National Assembly on the second and last day of his visit, the first by a Chinese head of state in a decade.
“Vietnam and China need to catch the chance to build community and the Asian destiny, through it, promoting the common human destiny,” he continued.
China and Vietnam share some cultural roots and a more recent communist political tradition, but Xi’s visit comes as Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea are causing concern, and as Hanoi is growing closer to the United States and its regional allies.
Uncontentious issues dominated Xi’s visit. Twelve agreements were signed, on cultural exchanges, tourist development, construction loans from Chinese banks for highway and rail projects, and aid from Beijing to support education and health care initiatives.
The diplomatic returns would take longer to assess, experts said.
“The ultimate test will not be listening to what Xi Jinping says, but what he does in the South China Sea,” said Jonathan London of the City University of Hong Kong.
“It’s status quo for the time being, but actions speak louder that words,” he told dpa.
Vietnam called for a code of conduct to resolve the dispute with China in the South China Sea, the Foreign Ministry said.
Such cooperation, London suggested, could involve energy and mineral exploitation, but would do little to counter the mistrust from China’s recent infrastructure building and territorial claims across the South China Sea, in areas claimed by Vietnam and others.
On one reef in the Spratly islands, China has invested “probably hundreds of millions of dollars into this man-made, military-ready island,” including runways, London said.
China’s claims were back in the headlines last week after the US sent a navy vessel to less than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) off an artificial reef built up by the Chinese, demonstrating Washington’s non-recognition of it as Chinese territory.
The South China Sea tensions were discussed on Friday in Luxembourg by European and Asian foreign ministers taking part in a two-day ASEM meeting – China among them.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who chaired the meeting, described the talks as “open” and “constructive.”
“This is one of the points on which some of the actors around the table have … very different positions, conflicting positions I would say. But this didn’t prevent us from having a respectful and constructive exchange,” she said.
A statement endorsed by participants in the ASEM talks said that ministers had “reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining peace, promoting maritime security and stability, safety and cooperation, freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce.”
They also agreed on “the critical importance of refraining from the use or threat of force, of abstaining from unilateral actions and of resolving maritime disputes through peaceful means in accordance with … international law,” the text said.
Though general, the statement is an achievement since there was the risk of “not having a common ground at all,” Mogherini argued.
Last year, deadly anti-China protests broke out in Vietnam after Beijing towed an exploration rig into its exclusive economic zone. At least one Vietnamese boat was rammed and sunk before China withdrew the rig.