What the Mainland Media Say

China's ties with Vietnam viewed through rose-tinted glasses

Press stresses the partnership between Beijing and Hanoi, but the evidence suggests Vietnam is still wary of its giant neighbour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 April, 2015, 6:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 April, 2015, 6:51am

China and Vietnam have long had a "love-hate" relationship.

Historians have described it as like a family affair, with the closeness gained from shared values, culture and religion - but also bitterness from constant rivalries, including periods of Chinese rule and influence over Vietnam that stretched over more than a thousand years.

The latest period of love was built on the personal ties between the communist founding leaders: Chairman Mao Zedong characterised the relationship "as close as the lips and the teeth"; his Vietnamese counterpart, Ho Chi Minh, defined it as "comrades plus brothers".

The special bond was evident when China provided critical material aid to help their Vietnamese comrades' fight, first against the French in the first Indochina war from the late 1940s until 1954 - and the Americans in the second conflict, better known as the Vietnam war.

However, by February 1979 all signs of brotherly love had disappeared when a bloody Sino-Vietnamese border war broke out between the two neighbours.

China sent 200,000 soldiers into Vietnam to "teach their comrades a lesson" after about 250,000 ethnic Chinese had fled persecution there, with Hanoi allied with Russia, its Soviet socialist big brother. This war led to the loss of ten of thousands of lives on both sides.

Tensions between them have risen further in recent years, with street riots in Vietnam against Chinese businesses and citizens, as China has increasingly asserted itself in disputed territories in the South China Sea. That is why China's state-run media adopted a cautious tone when welcoming Vietnam Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong on his historic visit to China earlier this month.

Xinhua hailed Trong's trip as a sign that both sides "cherished their strong and lasting bond".

In an article titled, "Partnership Re-established", the news magazine Beijing Review said the trip highlighted the "brotherly friendship" between the nations.

Elsewhere, the Global Times, a tabloid affiliated to the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, said the "relationship between the two nations was particularly special among all of its bilateral ties".

The Global Times added that neither country "would allow anybody to drive a wedge between them", referring to Vietnam's move closer to the United States. From China's perspective, Vietnam is a key neighbour and a strategic communist partner as Beijing restrains the Obama administration's so-called "pivot to Asia" - something the mainland regards as an attempt to slow its growing prominence.

However, Vietnam is cautious when dealing with China. During its long history under Chinese influence, Vietnam enthusiastically embraced many aspects of Chinese civilisation, while at the same time fighting with extraordinary vigour to maintain its own cultural identity and regain its sovereign independence.

As China's regional influence grows, Vietnam is increasingly defining itself and its popular history in terms of its historical conflicts with China.

So even while Trong was in Beijing, Vietnam was simultaneously hosting US Navy ships in Da Nang for annual joint naval activities. Trong will also pay a visit to Washington later this year.

Vietnam is also sparing no effort in trying to strengthen its ties with other regional powers, such as Russia and India, in the hope of checking China's fast-growing power.

It is apparent that efforts to establish a defensive socialist alliance have become unrealistic; their ideological affinity has fallen victim again to the imperatives of realpolitik. Their shared historical experiences, culture and values have failed to alter their respective agendas on national security and strategy.