Balancing act: Vietnam may find itself hosting Barack Obama and Xi Jinping within days of each other

Hanoi's complicated geopolitical position may be drawn into sharp focus when Xi Jinping and Barack Obama arrive for talks later this year

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 9:02am

Vietnam may be forced to perform a delicate balancing act should President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, visit within the same timeframe, as expected, later this year.

No exact dates have been fixed for Xi's visit - which will be the first in 10 years by a Chinese president. Hanoi's invitation for Xi to visit was accepted last year but sources say Beijing only recently confirmed that Xi would come by the end of this year.

We could be receiving two of the most important world leaders

It means there could be some intense diplomatic jostling as the visits by the Chinese and American presidents are scheduled so close to each other. The rivalry between the two major powers has intensified, while maritime territorial disputes continue to strain Beijing's ties with Hanoi and Washington.

The most likely timing, according to analysts, will be in November when regional leaders, including Xi, gather in Manila for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.

This, however, could create a diplomatic challenge for Hanoi as Obama is also likely to swing by Vietnam on his way to Manila.

Read more: Vietnam Communist Party chief to make first US visit as former foes mull China's territorial claims

"We could be receiving two of the most important world leaders around the same time," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Obama's trip will mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the former enemies. The two countries have ramped up bilateral ties in recent years as Hanoi seeks to hedge against Beijing's posturing in the South China Sea, while Washington continues its so-called pivot towards Asia, a move China views as containment.

Philippine media reported earlier this year that Xi may boycott the Manila summit because of President Benigno Aquino's position on the South China Sea disputes. But Xu Liping, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a snub by Xi was unlikely.

"Even if Xi did skip the Apec summit, he would still be going to Vietnam," Xu said, adding that Xi could also visit Singapore.

Xi's Southeast Asian tour will be closely watched as China's activities in the South China Sea have frayed its ties with other countries in the region. Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal opponents of Chinese claims.

Read more: ‘We have travelled a remarkable distance’: US Secretary of State John Kerry celebrates alliance with Vietnam

Relations between the communist neighbours nosedived after China parked a giant oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam's coast. The two countries have made amends since then, but Vietnam has also been cultivating stronger ties with other powers, particularly the US.

While the Chinese leader is expected to use his visit to further mend ties, his trip will come as Hanoi prepares for the 12th party congress next year, when it will elect a new leadership.

"A high-level visit by a Chinese leader is very necessary when Vietnam will have a new leadership next year," said Xu, the CASS researcher.

"It's important that he [Xi] could communicate with all Vietnamese leaders, and it might have certain influence if he gives 'encouragement' to the pro-Beijing figures."

While China insists it upholds a "non-interference" foreign policy, Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said Beijing had in the past sought to influence Vietnam's leadership reshuffles.

"Xi would want to use this trip to influence the party congress, and to stop it [Vietnam] from moving towards the US," Thayer said.