China Power

Hanoi Headache for China

Vietnam has demanded nine fishermen being held by China be released. It’s awkward timing for Beijing.

China may have felt like it had tamped down one maritime diplomatic spat with the meeting this week between Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Speaking before leaving the Asia-Europe meeting in Brussels, Kan said that the two leaders had talked for almost half an hour (in a corridor after dinner) on Monday, and that they’d agreed that it was ‘not desirable’ for them to allow ties to deteriorate.

Of course the fundamental reason the row arose in the first place—disputed ownership of islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China—has been left unresolved, with both leaders reportedly reiterating that they view the islands as part of their respective territories. And, Kan appears to have used his speech at the meeting to send a message to China, warning that nations must 'mutually abide by common rules'. Still, it’s better for all concerned that they’re actually talking.

Yet China could well be reaping what it has sown this summer for a while yet, with Vietnam announcing today that it had demanded the unconditional release of nine fishermen who were detained by China last month near the disputed Paracel Islands, which Vietnam claims.

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According to Reuters, officials at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi said the sailors had been illegally fishing with explosives and that they would be released only if the captain pays a fine. Vietnamese officials responded by dismissing the claims as ‘absurd’.

The timing is awkward for China as it will next week be attending a defence minister meeting at the Association of South East Asian Nations plus eight meeting in Hanoi (a meeting that also includes the United States).

Beijing confirmed today that Defense Minister Liang Guanglie will be attending the event to outline China’s defence plans and proposals for regional co-operation (presumably Liang is having to practice his straight face), and will also meet US Defence Secretary Robert Gates for a ‘short but significant’ face to face.

It will be interesting to see if the atmosphere between the two sides is any less frosty than it was at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore in June, when Gates laid the blame for the lack of progress on improving relations firmly at the door of China.