Top Chinese diplomat visits Vietnam to repair ties strained by oil rig, US arms sales



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HANOI, Vietnam — China's top diplomat was greeted warmly as he arrived in Vietnam on Monday to repair ties ruptured by disputes over the South China Sea.

Relations between the two communist neighbors plunged to the lowest point in years after China in May deployed a giant oil rig near the Paracels, also claimed by Vietnam.

Making his second visit to Vietnam since June, China's State Councilor Yang Jiechi, who outranks the foreign minister, was greeted by a smiling Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh.

On Yang's previous visit, Minh was serious and unsmiling, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry quoted Yang as accusing Vietnam of disrupting the oil rig's operations and "playing up disputes."

On Monday, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry quoted Yang as telling Minh that the two sides have made efforts to put their relations back on track.

"Currently, the bilateral relations have restored step by step," the statement quoted Yang as saying. "The two sides should ... properly address and well control sea differences to create favorable condition for bilateral cooperation."

Minh told Yang that he was glad to see him again and was willing to work for closer ties.

"Hopefully with the common efforts by both countries, both sides, this meeting will produce positive results, creating stronger impetus for the restoration and development of bilateral relations in a stable and healthy manner," he said.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing that Yang was in Vietnam to help repair the China-Vietnam relationship that "plunged into temporary difficulty over maritime issues."

"We would like to work with Vietnam to implement the consensus of the two (ruling) political parties and continue to improve the bilateral relations," she said.

A Vietnamese official familiar with the talks said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media that the two sides agreed to speed up their cooperation in other areas and the maritime disputes are only one of the issues discussed.

The two sides agreed to speed up easier maritime differences first such as the demarcation of the Tonkin Gulf, he added.

The Chinese oil rig deployment sparked angry protests in Vietnam and some turned into riots which killed four Chinese nationals.

China moved the oil rig in mid-July, citing the start of the stormy season, and since then the two countries have engaged in high-level meetings to try to mend ties. The two prime ministers met earlier this month on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe summit in Italy where they agreed to control the sea disputes.

A veteran Vietnamese diplomat said he doubted that the hectic diplomatic campaign will produce concrete results.

"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. "The world should not be illusioned about Chinese goodwill on the East Sea issue." East Sea is Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.

Asked whether China will ever give up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, Dy said, "Absolutely never."

Yang's visit came one day after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski visited Hanoi and called for closer ties on condition that the communist government made more progress on human rights.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government partially lifted the ban on lethal arms sales that would help Vietnam to strengthen its maritime capability. The move may anger China.

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