Joint development key to resolving South China Sea dispute

16:20, July 12, 2011      

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As tensions between China and Vietnam have recently escalated, certain pessimists are ruling out the possibility of the two countries resolving the South China Sea dispute through bilateral cooperation.

In fact, despite the long-running dispute over the South China Sea and its resources, China and Vietnam have managed to maintain friendly relations with each other and are becoming increasingly interdependent, especially in the areas of trade and investments.

The reporter recently conducted a survey in Hekou Port, and found that the thriving border trade between China and Vietnam was not affected by the recent tensions. This shows that pursuing win-win economic cooperation remains the mainstay of China-Vietnam relations, and it is in the best interests of the two countries to shelve the dispute and jointly develop resources in the South China Sea.

The aforementioned view is based on the fact that although the South China Sea issue is significant to the development of the China-Vietnam relations, it is not the whole story of the bilateral ties. In fact, the China-Vietnam relations have experienced many fluctuations since the founding of New China. However, the two countries and their ruling parties have maintained close cooperation since the end of the Cold War with frequent exchanges among the leaders of the two states, and the comprehensive cooperation between the two sides under the "Framework Agreement on China-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation" has also been progressing smoothly.

The long-term South China Sea issue has yet to hamper the rapid development of the China-Vietnam relations. The main reasons behind the continued escalation of the South China Sea issue, which has been rooted in the history over recent years, lie in the effects of factors within and beyond the region.

First, although China's rapid economic rise means development opportunities to its neighboring countries, the rapid bilateral trade growth has come with Vietnam's continued trade deficit with China, which exceeded 14 billion U.S. dollars in 2010. As an export-oriented country, Vietnam is evidently aware that it has suffered losses in its cooperation with China, which has affected the Vietnamese people's perception of China to some extent and caused them to go to the extreme when it comes to the South China Sea issue.

Second, the rise in China's strength has also made Vietnam relatively reluctant to set aside the dispute and seek joint development because the expanding gap in the two countries' strength brought about by China's development does not favor Vietnam's claim of sovereignty over the disputed areas. Certainly, forces beyond the region have made the situation in the South China Sea more complicated, particularly after the high-profile intervention made by the United States

However, this does not change the international relations rule of benefiting from cooperation and losing from conflicts between China and Vietnam. Therefore, both sides will treat the dispute in the South China Sea with a restrained attitude. Vietnam currently focuses more on the economic interests in the South China Sea because it needs to consume more energy to develop the manufacturing industry on a large scale.

As international oil prices remain high, the rich oil and gas resources of the South China Sea have great attraction both for domestic demand supply or appropriate export. However, by taking tough unilateral action to destroy relations with its important economic partner, China may get more kicks than half penny. This is perhaps the main reason why Vietnam recently sent an envoy to visit China.

How to take effective measures to shelve disputes and achieve common development and win-win solutions is a more pressing issue for both sides because keeping economic development and improving the people's living standards will still be the primary task of China and Vietnam in a period of time. Comrade Deng Xiaoping had stressed that sovereignty disputes can be left to later generations to solve. Of course, the two sides should first unswervingly implement the principle of shelving certain disputes to benefit from the common development, and leaders of both countries need certain political courage to achieve this goal under the current international background.

By Wang Yuzhu, an expert on ASEAN from the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, translated by People's Daily Online
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