VIENTIANE, Laos – Vietnam aims to settle its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea through bilateral negotiations even though it doesn't rule out applying international laws, as the Philippines did in its recent arbitration victory, the deputy foreign minister said Tuesday.
"Our consistent policy is to settle disputes through peaceful means in accordance with national laws and United Nations (conventions and laws), and we attach quite (a lot of) importance to bilateral negotiations," Le Hoai Trung told The Associated Press.
"For us, all means of peaceful settlement are important. All means. So you can count (international arbitration) but we attach importance to bilateral negotiations," he said in the interview on the sidelines of a regional security meeting being hosted by Laos. "The important factor is you need to have the goodwill, and you need to base your claims on international law, the relevant international law," he said.
China claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea on historical grounds, overlapping with claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Only Philippines has taken its dispute to The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled in its favor earlier this month on the basis of the 1982 U.N. Conventions on the Laws of the Sea. China, however, does not accept the tribunal's authority over the matter and has rejected the ruling.
The ruling should embolden all claimants now that they know the international law does not favor China. Yet, the four Southeast Asian countries, which have little clout in the face of China's might, are reluctant to escalate tensions by internationalizing the dispute.
At a meeting of the foreign ministers of 10 Southeast Asian nations on Sunday, even the Philippines was reluctant to have the grouping rebuke China, and in several forums said its dispute had nothing to do with the region, according to diplomats who attended the closed-door meetings. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.
The continuing conciliatory tone toward China was evident in Trung's comments.
"We should use everything that we have to promote friendship and promote negotiations. And not to look at it as who has won or who has lost. So, self-restraint. And try to move forward ... guided by constructive and positive spirit and work for friendship," he said.
China and Vietnam have had long-running territorial disputes in the Spratly Islands and the Paracels in the South China Sea. Tensions spiked in 2014 with a standoff after China moved a massive oil rig off the Paracels.
China is now Vietnam's largest trading partner and the Asian neighbors have since tried to mend ties by exchanging high-level visits although tensions remain over the islands.
Trung said Vietnam has resolved several of its border issues with Cambodia, Laos, China and Malaysia through bilateral negotiations, and there is no reason why it can't resolve the South China Sea this way.