Last update 1/26/2012 8:00:00 AM (GMT+7)

Vietnam-China 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, the year with remarkable events in foreign relations.

East Sea in Party Chief’s visit to China

The East Sea disputes

Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and his Chinese counterpart Hua Jintao.

Vu Khoan is the 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 in this talk.

More importantly, he is among several retired high-ranking officials who are still very interested in the development of the present situation and offer their successors significant clues for policy making process. Some call Vu Khoan as 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 visit to China of Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.


The key result of this visit is the signing of the six-point agreement on guiding principles for negotiation of 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.

The signing of this agreement caused 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 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’ back the issues that are related to them.

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

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, if have. 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 is 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 how Mr. Duong Trung Quoc did say or what did he mean, but with a cold head, we have to accept the fact that the relations between the two countries worsened since mid-1970s and the border war that occurred in 1979.

However, our policy is closing the past, looking to the future as we have behaved with France, the US, Japan and South Korea. Our countries were invaded by many countries. If we keep 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 to not 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 Islands. 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.

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

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

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

Everything that is related to sovereignty is all important.

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

There is a fact that there is a trend that extremely highlights the nationalism in both Vietnam and China. How should we deal with it, in your opinion? For example, about information I feel which may be wrong--that it seems to have no mutual-trust between leaders and the people. The people are in doubt for something while the leaders perhaps do not actually believe in the people.

Not actually, because if the leaders do not believe in their people, how they lead the country? It is the best if leaders have patriotic and enthusiastic people.

However, the people should show their patriotism in the way that is the most helpful for the country. The ones who represent the noblest patriotism are naval soldiers on islands who are not afraid of any difficulty to defend the country’s sovereignty.

I extremely admire them, especially the soldiers who are based on small frame houses amid of the boundless sea. I think that all of these soldiers are worthy for the Hero title.

There is another thing that needs understanding. In international relations, leaders cannot tell their people on TV everything about the country’s foreign policies. However, there are many ways to help the people understand but we do not use them effectively. However, the people should understand the character of foreign affairs: there are many things must be kept secret and understand the difficulty of leaders.

Some people do not understand that point, those who have warm heart but do not have cold heads. Even someone take advantage of this to incite the public for their own interests while the state’s PR activities are not timely.

Therefore, we should see the matter comprehensively and not blame each others, which will benefit those who “sit on the mountain peak to see tigers fight each others”.

It is partly the fault of correspondents like us when some Chinese newspapers tell the news [related to the East Sea dispute] wrongly or vaguely to benefit themselves, but our journalists do not quickly correct the information.

The coordination between the press and the press management agencies is not harmonious so our media often tells the news late. I have made suggestion about this.

Prof. Carl Thayer, an expert about Southeast Asia and the 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 place first, others will.

Bit countries often want to bully the smaller ones and this is very clear in the story about territory and business. Returning to the East Sea dispute, if smaller countries group up to raise their voice together, the big one will have to lower its voice.

The world today is interdependent. Certainly, the power still have the thought and the behavior of the power but they cannot live alone. They still have to see the other big countries, so they still need friends.

Thus, the strong point of small countries can become counterpoise in the relations among the big countries. ASEAN is not a small counterpoise, with over 500 million people and being a region of dynamically economic development and great prestige in the world.

Do you see any regional organization that its summits attract nearly ten heads of state of big countries, except for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

Regarding  the East Sea dispute, it will be a very long way to solve it but we must have a direction from the beginning to overcome that long road to the end finish. What do you think about the coherence among state members of ASEAN, which directly or indirectly involve in the East Sea dispute, for instance between Vietnam and Malaysia or Vietnam and the Philippines?

In international relations, interest is the most important. In objective conditions, ASEAN members must share interests. Related to the East Sea dispute, interests are alternated, not be clear. There are not only interests in the East Sea but there are so many others. The East Sea is only one aspect in ASEAN relations.

I mean that in each interest, we have to find our friends, who have similar interest with us.

We have our own interests so we cannot ask others to give up their interests. International relations mean "having both feet on the ground".

In late 2009, an official who is 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, this issue had been considered as 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 to support the Manila Declaration.

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

What do you say about the coincidence between Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to China to sign the six-point agreement on the principle to solve the East Sea dispute and President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to India, to invite Indian businesses to invest in oil and gas exploration in the East Sea and to enhance Vietnam-India’s defense cooperation, which Chinese media implied something? Is it considered as normalizing “sensitive concepts?”

(Bursting out laughing) As I know, the coincidence of these visits was by chance. It became boisterous owing to deduction. We understand clearly that nobody wants to be a playing card of anyone and it is not our policy to unite against somebody. We must remember that not only we are wise.

Huynh Phan