During Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Southeast Asia earlier this month, Chinese press and media commentators went into overdrive in describing the major agreements that had been reached between China, Brunei and Vietnam to advance maritime cooperation and joint development. On October 13, for example, Xinhua urged other regional states to follow suit and “take up the magic wand of joint development.” A day later, Xinhua also reported a “breakthrough in bilateral cooperation” between Beijing and Hanoi.
Hua Yiwen, identified as an expert on global issues, wrote in the People's Daily Online last Friday that Li “put forward three ‘breakthrough’ ideas to handle maritime disputes in a peaceful manner: controlling divergence, exploring joint development, and promoting maritime cooperation.” In the article, Hua also argued that members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who were not parties to the South China Sea dispute could draw on the China-ASEAN Cooperation Fund and “work together to build a 21st century maritime Silk Road.”
Despite the hopeful picture that Chinese media outlets have portrayed, a closer look at the actual agreements reached between Li and his regional counterparts suggests that these press claims were actually greatly exaggerated.
One example comes from last April, when the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, visited China. After formal discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping the two leaders issued a Joint Statement supporting bilateral exploration and exploitation of offshore oil and gas resources by their respective oil companies. These joint activities were to be undertaken “on the basis of the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit. The relevant cooperation will not affect the respective maritime rights and interests of the two countries.”
On October 11, the aforementioned Joint Statement stated that both sides “agreed to enhance maritime cooperation to promote joint development” and they welcomed the agreement signed by the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) and Brunei National Petroleum Company Sendirian Berhad (PetroleumBRUNEI) on setting up a joint venture. Later that week, Xinhua described the development as “a pioneering move.” In fact, the overhyped agreement was actually a much more modest one that only involved setting up a joint venture to provide oil field services.
In October 2011, China and Vietnam reached an Agreement on Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement of Maritime Issues. The two agreed to deal with the easy issues first and address the difficult issues later. Priority was placed on speeding up the demarcation of waters outside the Gulf of Tonkin and, once this was accomplished, they would commence discussions on “co-operation for mutual development” in these waters. The Basic Principles called for China and Vietnam to undertake cooperation in less-sensitive fields such an environmental protection, marine scientific research, search and rescue at sea, and mitigation of damage caused by natural disasters.
Additionally, during Li’s visit to Vietnam this month, he and his Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, agreed to formally establish three working groups on maritime cooperation, onshore cooperation, and financial cooperation. The maritime working group is to be set up within the existing joint Governmental Negotiation Team on Vietnam-China Boundary and Territory.
An official spokesperson for China’s Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on October 14 that the “decision to establish a maritime cooperation work group… demonstrates the two countries’ ability to solve the disputes in the South China Sea, which is the only problem left affecting the bilateral relationship.”
Chinese press and media commentators have interpreted references to maritime cooperation in the leaders’ statement as a “breakthrough” involving joint development in the waters outside the Gulf of Tonkin. Commentator Hua Yiwen enthused that this would lead to “further development in a wider range of waters.”
The 2011 China-Vietnam Basic Principles were published separately in Chinese and Vietnamese, which has led to ambiguity in their translation into English. For example, Vietnam uses the expression “cooperation for mutual development” rather than “joint development.” Vietnam has not agreed to cut a separate deal with China at the expense of other claimants. Point 3 of the 2011 Basic Principles states clearly, “disputes relating to other countries shall be settled through negotiations with other concerned parties.”
There can be no question that Li’s visit to Vietnam served to keep bilateral relations on an upward trajectory. But claims of a major breakthrough appear premature, regardless of what Chinese media commentators may claim. Li and Dung agreed to “kick-start a joint survey in the waters off the mouth of the Tonkin Gulf” as well as to undertake joint cooperation in maritime environmental protection in the Gulf of Tonkin and conduct a survey of Holocenne-era sediments in the Red River and Yangtze Deltas.
Duong Danh Dy, former Vietnamese Consul General in Guangzhou, China offered his assessment, "It’s just diplomatic rhetoric. Vietnamese and Chinese interests over the South China Sea are like fire and water.”