Long-standing plans to open joint border checkpoints between China and Vietnam could be realised as early as May, according to a Chinese official.

The two countries share a 1,280km (795 mile) land border and have been discussing a “two countries, one inspection” system for several years.

While progress had been hindered by an unwillingness on both sides to cede control over territory, a resolution could soon be reached, according to Jian Xingchao, vice-mayor of Fanchenggang, the Chinese city that is expected to house one of the two checkpoints.

“A lot of details are still being discussed, but it is the wish of both sides,” Jian said.

“The key issue is that whichever side conducts the inspections at the border, it is in effect exercising sovereignty over the other.

“It has been a very difficult issue to tackle as neither side wants to let go of that power.”

The first checkpoint, in Fanchenggang, is expected to be on the Dongxing-Móng Cái bridge, which opened in September last year. The second will most probably be at the Youyi Guan, or Friendship Pass, border gate in Pingxiang.

Both Fanchenggang and Pingxiang are in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The first checkpoint will connect with the city of Móng Cái in the northern Vietnamese province of Quàng Ninh and the second will connect with the town of Dong Dang in Lang Son province.

Jian said authorities were discussing the creation of neutral zones in which Chinese and Vietnamese customs officials could work side by side without any concerns over territorial issues.

“The zone would belong to neither China nor Vietnam, or you could say it would belong to both of them,” he said.

But the legal implications of operating such a shared facility had yet to be ironed out and were still under discussion, he said.

For Beijing, the development of the “two countries, one inspection” system would be a spur for its ambitions to develop closer trade and diplomatic links with its neighbours to the south, all of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The group is not only China’s third-largest trading partner, but also one of the world’s fastest-growing markets.

Given its location on the border, Guangxi’s party chief Peng Qinghua also noted that the southern region had a strategic role to play in the “Belt and Road Initiative”, China’s plan to boost trade and infrastructure links with nations from Asia to Africa and Europe.

Vietnam was China’s largest export destination among Asean countries last year, so their shared border was the natural choice to trial the new joint checkpoint scheme, despite decades of conflict between them.

Under the present system, vehicles and individuals crossing from one country to the other have to go through two customs checks in each direction.

Le Hong Hiep, a researcher on the Vietnam studies programme at Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said he was optimistic about the new scheme.

It could be a good example of how two countries can work together to promote mutual benefits and handle their relations in a proper way to move beyond the South China Sea dispute,” Le said, referring to the ongoing row between Beijing and Hanoi in the disputed waters.

For Vietnam, the plan would increase the transparency of customs operations, which would in turn help it to combat cross-border corruption, he said.

Also, as most of Vietnam’s border exports to China are agricultural products, a speedier system would be a boon for both growers and distribution companies, helping them get their goods to end users quicker.

By Kinling Lo - The South China Morning Post - February 4, 2018