China and Vietnam have agreed to settle their dispute over the South China Sea through negotiations, Beijing said Sunday as protesters in Hanoi marched for the fourth straight week to voice their outrage at their country's more powerful neighbor.
China and Vietnam have traded diplomatic jabs over the past month after clashes in parts of the oil-rich sea claimed by both countries. But China's Foreign Ministry said the countries had agreed to deal with the dispute "through negotiations and peaceful, friendly consultations," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
It said the State Councilor Dai Bingguo, a veteran diplomat, met Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son in Beijing on Saturday. Xinhua did not immediately give any other details.
In the Vietnamese capital, about 100 protesters marched down humid streets carrying signs that read: "China stop lying. China stop invading" and "Stop violating the territorial waters of Vietnam."
Protests are extremely rare in communist Vietnam and are typically quashed quickly by security forces. Still, Hanoi has allowed the demonstrations to go on for the past four Sundays amid tight security.
"The tensions in the East Sea may escalate, but if other countries join together, the Chinese may have to back down," said Phung Thi Tram, 70, referring to the area by its Vietnamese name. She yelled "Down With China!" as she marched.
Vietnam accuses Chinese vessels of hindering oil exploration surveys in an area 200 nautical miles off its central coast that it claims as its economic exclusive zone. China says Vietnam illegally entered its waters near the disputed Spratly islands and endangered Chinese fishermen.
The two sides have a long history of maritime scrapes, mainly involving areas around the believed resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands, which are claimed all or in part by Vietnam, China and several other Asian countries. But the current spat has become much more hostile, with both sides announcing live-fire naval drills were recently held.
Relations also have soured recently between Beijing and the Philippines over the South China Sea. Manila accuses Chinese boats of making nine intrusions into Philippine-claimed waters since Feb. 25.
The United States has said that the sea, home to key shipping lanes, is in its national interest. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. would honor its mutual defense treaty with its ally, the Philippines. She also said Washington was willing to support a collaborative, diplomatic process by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has attempted to frame a code of conduct with China.
Beijing has said all territorial disputes should be settled one-on-one with its Asian neighbors and that the United States should not be involved.