China woos Vietnam amid fears Obama’s visit will boost Washington’s military ties with Hanoi

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 11:53pm

Beijing has stepped up efforts to woo communist neighbour Hanoi just days before US President Barack Obama begins his first visit to Vietnam amid growing tensions over the South China Sea disputes.

After meeting Vietnam’s defence minister Ngo Xuan Lich on Thursday, the Chinese ambassador in Hanoi, Hong Xiaoyong, said both sides had agreed to strengthen military cooperation, Xinhua reported on Friday.

Analysts said the meeting appeared to be part of Chinese efforts to counter growing military ties between the United States and Vietnam and other nations in the region, especially in the lead-up to an international court ruling on the South China Sea disputes.

China, Vietnam vow to boost military ties amid strained relations over South China Sea

With economic and security cooperation high on his agenda, Obama’s visit, starting tomorrow, will almost certainly bring the two cold war foes closer and increase the US’ military presence in the region.

Analysts say Beijing is on high alert regarding closer defence ties between Washington and Hanoi as the Obama administration is considering lifting restrictions on arms sales and allowing Vietnam to buy lethal defence equipment for maritime security.

Vietnam is one of four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea.

Xinhua said Lichspoke highly of military cooperation between Beijing and Hanoi during the meeting and emphasised the significance of enhancing exchanges and cooperation between the two armies.

He vowed to stick to the guidelines of “friendly neighbourliness, comprehensive cooperation, long-term stability and looking towards the future” and the spirit of being “good neighbours, good friends, good comrades and good partners”.

Hong said China and Vietnam had agreed to boost exchanges and cooperation in various areas, including the military.

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Vietnamese media mentioned the meeting, but did not mention military cooperation. Lich met the US ambassador on the same day.

Analysts said Beijing would watch Obama’s trip closely as it might touch on whether US warships could visit the strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay.

“Apparently, Vietnam is counting on US intervention in the South China Sea tensions as a security shield to counter China’s growing assertiveness,” said Xu Liping, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He said military ties between China and Vietnam had been stalled for years due to the maritime disputes. The two nations clashed over the Paracel Islands in the 1970s and fought a brief but bloody war over border disputes in 1979.

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The pledges by Beijing and Hanoi to strengthen military ties were meant to send a positive signal, especially considering the severe challenges to bilateral ties posed by their maritime disputes, Xu said.

Analysts said growing military ties between the US and Vietnam were likely to infuriate Beijing, which has stepped up its rhetoric against Washington, blaming it for escalating tensions in the region.