Sino-Vietnam relations in the eye of a senior diplomat

VietNamNet’s Huynh Phan talked with former Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan about Vietnam’s foreign affairs in 2011, a year with remarkable events in foreign relations.

Vu Khoan is a senior diplomat who participated in the process of normalization and development of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China, Vietnam and the US and Vietnam and the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations, which are also the major contents of this talk.

More important, he is among several retired high-ranking officials who are still very interested in the development of the present situation and offering their successors significant clues for policy making process. Some call Vu Khoan a ‘forward thinker’.

In your opinion, what was the most important event in Vietnam’s foreign affairs in 2011?

Last year, Vietnam organized the National Party Congress and National Assembly election but diplomatic activities were still bustling. Many high-ranking delegations visited Vietnam and Vietnam sent many high-ranking delegations to other countries. Each visit has its own meaning and is very important. However, I think that the most remarkable event of the year is the China visit by Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.


The key result of this visit is the signing of the six-point agreement on guiding principles for negotiating sea-related issues between the two countries.

The situation in the East Sea in 2010 was tense. With this agreement, the East Sea dispute is brought to the negotiation channel. Negotiation, anyway, is better than conflict. It benefits Vietnam, China and the entire region.

In the current age, we should seek ways to solve everything by negotiation. It is noteworthy that a complicated matter like the East Sea conflict is put into the channel of negotiation.

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The signing of this agreement left some misunderstanding, for instance the Philippines asked for explanation. Do you think that misunderstanding came from the Chinese media’s intentional interpretation, for example the CCTV4 channel said that China and Vietnam agreed to solve the East Sea dispute bilaterally?

This is extortion. The six-point agreement clearly points out that bilateral matters will be solved bilaterally, and those which are related to many parties will be settled with related parties.

This is the principle that Vietnam has pursued from the beginning and it was finally committed to in written document under the witness of the highest leaders of the two countries.

I know that after the visit, Vietnam clearly informed related countries of the agreement. We never discuss behind other countries’ backs issues that are related to them.

Previously, Vietnam and China exchanged high-ranking visits on an annual basis. For example if this year Vietnamese leaders pay a visit to China, Chinese leaders will visit Vietnam next year. Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong visited China in September 2011, but already in December 2011, China sent Xi Jinping, who is considered its future Party and State chief, to Vietnam. Why?

Exchange of high-ranking visits has become a tradition, not only between Vietnam and China but between many countries in the world. Such visits are the chance for top leaders to exchange opinions, to work out directions and measures to develop bilateral ties and to solve disputes. Such visits are necessary when bilateral relations face problems.

The ties between Vietnam and China have a long and up-and-down history. When the relations are complicated, we should be calm and behave under the following guideline: “the heart must be hot but the head must be cold.”

With a cold head and the tradition of affection and gratitude, Vietnam does not forget Chinese people’s assistance in the wars of resistance in the past. Vietnam also realizes that since the bilateral relations were normalized, the relations have developed strongly in many aspects and many thorny issues like the land border, the Tonkin Gulf demarcation have been solved. This is useful for Vietnam’s international environment and position.

Only the East Sea dispute remains unsolved. We need to exert our effort to deal with it through diplomatic negotiation.

Historian Duong Trung Quoc said that we are unfair with the history of Vietnam-China relations, what do you think?

I don’t know exactly what Mr Duong Trung Quoc said or what he meant.

Our policy is closing the past and looking to the future, as we have behaved with France, the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Our countries were invaded by many countries. If we keep a feud in our hearts, how can we live?

But historical events cannot be blotted out of our memory easily, especially when complicated matters sometimes emerge in bilateral relations. Thus we expect that countries which have “problems” with us not to do anything that remind us about the past but do things for future friendship and cooperation.

Some said that the East Sea dispute is the dispute over the two archipelagos, Spratly and Paracel. However, others said that the territorial waters are more important, what is your viewpoint?

There are three stories in the East Sea which are all important.

First: The Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam. Vietnamese were present there for many years, but the archipelago is no longer in our hands.

Second: We were also present on the Spratly Islands for a long time but in 1988, China occupied some islands in this archipelago.

Third: the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam are defined under international law, especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), which were signed by both Vietnam and China. But China drafted the so-called U-shaped line in the East Sea, which encroaches on the territorial waters of other countries.

Everything that is related to sovereignty is important.

I have said that China needs to behave reasonably, based on neighborliness and international law, particularly the UNCLOS. Two countries that have different points of view must take something as the common standard, common meter. The only common meter is international law, meaning the UNCLOS.

Both countries are members of the UNCLOS and we have to solve disputes based on that meter.

Prof. Carl Thayer, an expert about Southeast Asia and East Sea, said that late provision of official and accurate information will create opportunity for rumor to spread among the public.

That’s right. False information will spread. If you do not take the first place, others will.

In late 2009, an official in charge of Vietnam’s relations with ASEAN, told me that the new feature of the ASEAN Year 2010 was the normalization of “sensitive concepts.” It means that the East Sea dispute was brought to discussion at big conferences like the ASEAN Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the ASEAN-China Summit. Previously, had this issue been considered very sensitive?

Not actually. When I worked at the Foreign Ministry, I dealt with this matter for a long time. This issue had been discussed at regional and international meetings.

In 1995, when Vietnam joined ASEAN, the ARF was established and I participated in this forum from the beginning. The East Sea dispute was discussed at ARF at that time. This issue was discussed annually, resulted in the signing of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) in 2002.

In 1992, former Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam, as an observer, stated support for the Manila Declaration.

Vietnam has pursued this matter for a long time because this issue may cause instability in the region.

Source: Huynh Phan (VietNamNet)