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International Boundaries Research Unit

Boundary news

China and Vietnam agree principles for resolving maritime disputes

(13 October 2011)

China and Vietnam have penned a new agreement on basic principles guiding settlement of sea-related issues on 10 October 2011 during the visit of the general secretary of Vietnam's Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Beijing. Both states maintain claims to the Paracel Islands and several insular features in the northern part of the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea (East Sea) alongside opposing claims to maritime jurisdiction. Tensions were heightened in May and June this year when Vietnam claimed that Chinese vessels interfered with oil survey vessels contracted by Vietnam operating in the South China Sea.

The new bilateral agreement is short on details and largely echoes the general provisions reached in previous multi-lateral arrangements such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed between China and the ASEAN member states, which is referred to directly. The agreement indicates that within negotiations both parties are respectful of legal evidence of claims (including historical evidence) and concerns, while seeking solutions that are based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and international law. The parties also indicate that their outstanding disputes would be resolved through friendly negotiation both bilaterally and through negotiations with other "concerned parties," implying that it remains highly unlikely they will submit their island and maritime disputes to binding third party settlement in the near future. The agreement suggests that both parties are considering provisional arrangements without prejudice to a final settlement, presumably including options for joint development. They hope to accelerate negotiations on delimitation or arrangements just outside the Tonkin Gulf, where they have already agreed a maritime boundary and fishing arrangements, and increase cooperation on less contentious issues such as maritime environmental protection, scientific research, and search and rescue operations. A 'hotline' has been established between the two states so that future tensions can be addressed quickly. Considering the level of tension raised in 2011, this latest agreement is certainly a welcome sign of goodwill on the part of both parties. However, by outlining only broad and ambiguous principles it doesn't appear to represent a major breakthrough in negotiations.

Source: 'Viet Nam, China signed Agreement on basic principles guiding settlement of sea-related issues' Viet Nam News Agency, Viet Nam Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 12 October 2011; 'China, Vietnam seal accord over maritime territory' Minnie Chan, South China Morning Post, 13 October 2011.

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