Strife between Beijing and Hanoi over the South China Sea boiled over on Monday when a scheduled one-on-one meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers was called off.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was due to meet his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh in Manila on the sidelines of a gathering of diplomats from Asean countries.
But a Chinese official said the meeting did not take place.
No reason was given for the cancellation and it was not clear if another meeting would be arranged before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ foreign ministers gathering ended on Tuesday.
The cancellation came hours after Asean foreign ministers endorsed a joint communique expressing concerns over Beijing’s land reclamation and military build-up in the hotly contested waters.
Diplomatic observers and sources said Vietnam, which has competing claims with China over the Paracel and Spratly islands, had emerged as a strong opponent of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Sources said Vietnam wanted the communique to stress the need for a maritime code of conduct that Beijing is negotiating with Asean over the South China Sea to be “legally binding”. Vietnam also wanted the bloc to underscore concerns about “extended construction” in the disputed waters. But Hanoi’s proposals faced strong opposition within Asean, whose countries rely heavily on China for trade and investment.
Wang said on Monday that just one or two foreign ministers expressed concerns about land reclamation.
“But I want to tell you that China had stopped or already completed land reclamation two years ago. If someone is talking about land reclamation, it must not be China. Probably the country which raised the issue is the one which is doing it,” he said.
The final Asean communique was carefully worded so as not to upset China, calling for non-militarisation of the disputed waters and reaffirming Asean’s readiness to begin substantive negotiations on the code of conduct with Beijing. But there was no mention of a legally binding document.
Xu Liping, a senior researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing was dismayed by Vietnam’s stand on the maritime issues.
“The cancellation can be seen as a warning to Vietnam,” Xu said.
State-run Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary that Vietnam’s attempt to push for a stronger language in the communique was to “poison” conditions in the South China Sea and to “sow discord” between China and Asean.
The spat is the latest in a long line between Beijing and Hanoi. Tensions between the neighbours flared in June when Vietnam began drilling for oil in waters with overlapping claims with China. That same month, Vietnamese coastguard vessels held their first joint exercises with their Japanese counterparts, simulating an operation to thwart illegal fishing in the South China Sea.
In response, a Chinese military delegation, led by Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, cut short a trip to Vietnam.
Carlyle Thayer, a specialist in Vietnamese affairs at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said Vietnam used to be able to count on the support of the Philippines in South China Sea disputes but
was “more exposed than before” as Manila embraced Beijing under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Getting support from Asean for stronger worlding on the South China Sea could strengthen – if only marginally – Vietnam’s diplomatic hand in dealing with China,” Thayer said. “Without such support Vietnam will be even more vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.”
But some diplomatic observers said that even though China had weakened resistance from the bloc, it was still unlikely to make concrete progress on the code of conduct in November when representatives from Asean and China next meet to discuss the protocol.
Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University, said the United States might encourage Asean countries to set higher goals in their talks with China, which could hamper negotiations.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang