Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - China and Vietnam agreed on Monday to use an existing border dispute mechanism to find a solution to a territorial dispute in the South China Sea in order to safeguard bilateral relations.
For some time, the governments of the two Communist nations, which have been historical allies, have sought to rebuild old ties, undermined last May by China's decision to place a platform for oil exploration in a disputed area.
China's decision to deploy a drilling rig in waters claimed by Vietnam led to confrontation at sea between rival vessels and violent anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, including attacks against foreign companies and plants with some dead and injured.
At the end of the meeting in Hanoi between Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, the two governments had agreed to "appropriately handle the maritime problem".
The gradual rapprochement between Hanoi and Beijing began in late August after Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi made his first visit to the Vietnamese capital in June at the height of the conflict.
Concerned about a possible alliance between Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and even the United States, China realised the importance of patching up relations with its neighbour over major issues separating the two countries.
China and Vietnam would "properly use a border negotiation mechanism between the two governments to seek a basic, lasting resolution both sides can accept", the Chinese foreign ministry said.
The two also agreed to "manage and control maritime disputes" and "not take any acts to complicate or expand the disagreement".
The stakes are huge. Sino-Vietnamese trade has in fact swelled to US$ 50 billion annually.
Analysts say the issue is likely to have been a hot debate within Vietnam's secretive Communist party, where members are believed to have mixed opinions about ties with China. Still both governments want "peace, stability and development".
There are critical voices though, in particular among veteran Vietnamese diplomats.
"China just wanted to show to the world that they wanted to ease tension in the bilateral relations," said Duong Danh Dy, former Vietnamese General Consul in Guangzhou.
In his view, the world should have no illusions about China. Asked whether Beijing would give up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, Dy said, "Absolutely never."
In recent years, Vietnam and the Philippines - which has taken its case to a UN court - have shown growing concern over China's "imperialism" in the South and East China Seas.
The Chinese government claims most of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
For the United States, which backs the claims of Southeast Asia nations, Beijing's so-called 'cow tongue' line is both "illegal" and "irrational".
Recently, even the Vietnamese bishops urged China to "convert to the Virgin of Fatima" for peace "in Asia and the world."