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Vietnam quiet on China border deal

By Nga Pham
BBC News

Chinese and Vietnamese ministers ink border deal 31 Dec 08
China and Vietnam have worked for years to demarcate their border

As the year begins, the press in Vietnam is customarily inundated with good news stories.

They range from positive signs in the economy, to the recent victory in a regional football championship.

But one of the most significant events - demarcation of the land border with China - has secured only modest play in even the most forward online media.

Just hours before the deadline expired, negotiating teams from Vietnam and China announced a consensus.

It has been almost 35 years since Hanoi and Beijing began discussing their boundaries and nearly a decade since the two signed a framework agreement on land border.

The process of demarcating the entire inland frontier between the two states has now been officially completed.

Does this fruit of hardship not deserve a better coverage?

Low key

Speaking to BBC from Hanoi, Dr Nguyen Hong Thao from the State Border Committee, who was also a member of the Vietnamese negotiating team, insisted that "everything was agreed" at the final round of talks.

He said there remained only small technical details to be worked out.

But Bui Tin, a former army colonel and newspaper editor now in exile, said the last-minute announcement showed signs of sheer "deadline pressure".

They don't want to upset China but also cannot risk massive reaction and condemnation from the public
Bui Tin
Hanoi critic in exile

"It seems they [Vietnam and China] were under huge time constraints to finalise the deal, even when not all was agreed and done," he said.

"The question is: who pressures whom?" added Mr Tin.

Many in Vietnam believe that their government has been pushed by Beijing into finalising agreements that are only beneficial to China.

Some also fear that Hanoi has conceded too much land, their concerns fuelled by the fact that no detailed map of the agreed boundaries has been made available to the public.

'No concession'

The Vietnamese government has always denied making any concessions.

Vietnamese carry goods through border, Jan 08
Trade across the China-Vietnam border continues to thrive
Le Cong Phung, ambassador to the United States and former head of the state border committee, said in an interview in September that Vietnam stayed true to territorial claims made in the two historical conventions signed by its former coloniser France and the Ching Dynasty of China in 1887 and 1895.

"For some special areas the two sides may, through friendly negotiations, make proper readjustment in the spirit of sympathy and mutual compromise, equity and reasonableness," Mr Phung was quoted by the Vietnam News Agency as saying.

He also stated that a clearer definition of the land border between the two countries was needed for "better management and maintenance of stability in the border region".

Vietnam and China fought a short but bloody frontier war in February 1979, that cost both countries tens of thousands of lives.

Transparency

The unclear border demarcation situation has prompted sporadic disputes between the two nations in the past.

But critics say, while a clearly-defined border line is obviously needed, there should be transparency and public consultation all the way through.

Chinese soldier visits war grave, China, Feb 07
China and Vietnam fought a bitter border war in 1979

Ho Van Duong, from Ho Chi Minh City, wrote to the BBC's Vietnamese Service: "Most Vietnamese don't know much about the content of the land border agreement. Why don't we, who are to develop and defend our land, deserve to be better informed about this most important matter?"

Another man, Conan, urged the government not to rush. He wrote: "We don't seem to hurry in our road projects, why hurry in signing off border deals?"

Territorial sovereignty is a huge issue and of major concern to most Vietnamese.

When China was reported to be announcing plans to establish an administration unit in Hainan province to incorporate the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in late 2007, mass protests erupted in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Both Vietnam and China, together with a number of other countries, claim ownership of this resources-rich area.

Dilemma

The two governments are set to sign an official Protocol of Border Demarcation and release a map to go with it once all the work is done.

According to Dr Thao from the border committee, this technical process may take another year or so.

But Mr Bui Tin, a well-known vocal critic of the regime, warned Hanoi to tread carefully with the last steps.

In his opinion, Vietnam's leadership was now facing an extremely tough dilemma.

"They don't want to upset China, but also cannot risk massive reaction and condemnation from the public," he said.



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