The naval commanders of Vietnam and China agreed to set up a hotline in a move seen as an attempt to manage the risk of conflict over the two countries’ claims in the South China Sea.
The admirals of the two navies also pledged to increase information sharing on the situation at sea and issues of mutual concern, according to the People’s Army Newspaper.
During the online phone conversation on May 28 of Rear Admiral Tran Thanh Nghiem, commander of the Vietnam People’s Navy, with Admiral Shen Jinlong, commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, the two sides agreed to strengthen cooperation between the two navies and promote exchanges after the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, said the Ministry of National Defense of Vietnam.
The phone call took place as Hanoi and Beijing are said to be seeking to further strengthen ties after Vietnam reshuffled its leadership since the 13th Party Congress. Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for further development of a comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam in an effort to further tighten ties between the two countries during a phone call with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry about the phone call did not mention the tension between the two countries over the sovereignty claims, but Vietnam’s state-controlled media said that Phuc proposed a number of measures to promote bilateral relations, including the “jointly peaceful settlement of issues at sea” in accordance with international law.
In a phone call on May 28, the two commanders of Vietnam and China agreed to “research and establish a hotline between the two navies to “proactively handle and resolve arising issues.”
According to Dr. Le Hong Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute for Southeast Asian Studies with the South China Morning Post, this latest move is part of a “risk hedging strategy” in Vietnam’s relationship with China, “including the elements of balance and cohesion.”
“While trying to upgrade its maritime and military law enforcement capabilities to counter China’s assertiveness on the ground, Vietnam also wants to promote bilaterally political, economic and military cooperation if possible to maintain a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship with China,” Dr. Hiep told SCMP. “Promoting bilateral naval cooperation is part of this effort.”
The hotline between the Vietnamese and Chinese navies is expected to complement the direct communication line between the defense ministries of the two countries established at the end of 2015.
The biggest security issue for both China and Vietnam is the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, where confrontations and back and forth between the navy and coast guard are still ongoing, according to researcher Chen Xiangmiao of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan commented to SCMP.
“The growing cooperation between the navies of Vietnam and the United States has also dealt a blow to the prospects of naval cooperation between Vietnam and China,” Chen was quoted as saying by SCMP. “So a hotline like this, if established, could be part of a crisis management mechanism and could help improve mutual trust between the two navies.”