China, Vietnam look to warm ties ahead of Apec summit, but is it all part of Hanoi’s balancing act?

Despite recent promises to boost trust, cooperation, relations between the two communist neighbours are still far from settled

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 12:48pm

After months of tension resulting from disputes in the South China Sea, recent talks between China and Vietnam have had a more conciliatory tone. Observers, however, have said that the situation between the two communist neighbours is still far from settled as Hanoi seeks to balance its relationships with both Beijing and Washington.

“Because of its strategic location in Asia, Vietnam has long had the advantage of being able to play a balancing role between great powers, like China and the Soviet Union, for example,” Zhang Mingliang, an expert on Southeast Asia at Jinan University in southern China’s Guangdong province, said.

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Hanoi’s tactic of trying to stay close to Beijing for economic benefit but Washington for security leverage will be on full view in November when the Vietnamese capital hosts the annual Apec summit. Both US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to attend.

“Vietnam has long seen China as its main rival in strategic terms, but when it comes to regime security, China, rather than the US, is its firm ally,” Zhang said.

For decades, relations between China and Vietnam have been delicate and complicated. However, at a meeting last week to discuss border defence issues – held on the border between China’s Yunnan province and Vietnam’s Lai Chau province – Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, told Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich that the two nations should seek to “strengthen mutual trust and deepen communication”.

Also, on Thursday, officials from the two countries agreed to boost trade ties and build cross-border economic cooperation zones, Xinhua reported.

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Both moves are in stark contrast to the events of recent months. In June, Beijing cancelled a similar border defence issues meeting after Vietnam began an oil drilling operation in the South China Sea. Two months later, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi cancelled a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart after Hanoi tried to push diplomats to include language critical of Beijing’s role in maritime disputes in a regional summit declaration.

As that argument raged, Vietnam and the US vowed to deepen maritime cooperation and work towards arranging a visit by a US naval carrier to Vietnam.

Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that Vietnam was keen to enhance its bargaining power with China and that a close relationship with the US would provide a confidence boost in that direction.

“A strengthened relationship with the US is particularly important to Vietnam, as the US is now the only power with adequate military capabilities and political will to challenge China’s strategic ambitions, including in the South China Sea,” Le said.

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The relationship between Hanoi and Washington received a fillip in 2016 – nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam war – when the US lifted its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to its former adversary to help it improve its maritime security, following a partial lift two years earlier.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc was also the first Southeast Asian head of state to meet Trump after he took over in the White House.

While boosting its ties with the US, Vietnam has no desire to lessen its relationship with China. As well as the economic advantages to be gained, the two communist neighbours need one another’s support to protect regime security in the region.

In a meeting with Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong last week, Liu Yunshan, China’s fifth-highest ranking Communist Party official, said the two parties shared a destiny and should work side by side to support each other.

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Le added that Vietnam was also under “no illusion” that regardless of its relationship with major powers like the US and Japan, neither would be able to offer effective protection were it to become embroiled in an armed conflict with its northern neighbour.

So, while both sides were keen to prevent any major confrontations ahead of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the underlying tensions over the South China Sea remained a potential flashpoint, Le said.

“The mood and the future prospect of bilateral relations will depend more on China’s actions in the South China Sea, than Vietnam’s wishes,” he said.

“The ball is in Beijing’s court and it’s Beijing who calls the shots.”