China, Vietnam vow closer ties, to ‘manage’ South China Sea dispute in joint focus on external challenges
- Joint statement from Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong and Chinese President Xi Jinping contains new section on communist-ruled states
- Historic third term is ‘special bond’ between the two leaders and fuels their suspicions about regime change promoted by the US, analyst says
Although tensions over the South China Sea dispute have largely eased since 2019, it remains the most challenging issue between the socialist neighbours, both of which claim a large part of the contested waterway.
Xi “exchanged in-depth and candid views on maritime issues” with his Vietnamese counterpart, according to the joint declaration released on Wednesday.
They also vowed to “actively negotiate transitional and temporary solutions that do not impact their respective positions and propositions”, while seeking mutually acceptable “basic, permanent solutions”.
Further, both sides agreed to “carry out maritime cooperation in low-sensitive areas” and push ahead with the largely stalled negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea “in line with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.
In a departure from the previous three China-Vietnam joint declarations issued since Trong took power in 2011, the latest statement also included a separate section shedding light on the shared global outlook of communist-ruled states.
“The regional and global situations are undergoing rapid, complex and unpredictable changes, tensions in hotspots are escalating … and multilateralism, economic globalisation, and world peace and development are facing severe challenges,” the lengthy 6,400-word document said.
Both countries also pledged to deepen defence and economic ties, work together in “the fight against terrorism, ‘peaceful evolution’, ‘colour revolution’ and the politicisation of human rights issues”.
Peaceful evolution references attempts to transform a one-party socialist system such as in China and Vietnam from within, through political, ideological and cultural infiltration.
But the document made no mention of Trong’s statement that his country would not allow any nation to establish a military base in Vietnam, or join any military alliance, or use force against any country, or work with one country to oppose another.
Statements released by Vietnam also did not include those remarks, which only appeared in Chinese state news agency Xinhua’s account of the meeting.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs specialist at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said it was rare for top-level bilateral documents to mention “colour revolution” and “peaceful evolution”, underlining concerns in both Beijing and Hanoi about regime stability.
He also noted it was rare for both sides to discuss the possibility of the vaguely defined “transitional solutions” to their long-standing maritime dispute in the official document.
“We don’t exactly know the differences between transitional solutions and temporary ones, which could include joint exploration efforts,” he noted.
In an editorial published just ahead of Trong’s visit, Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times warned that “the US and the West have never given up on ‘peaceful evolution’ against China and Vietnam”. It also urged Hanoi to side with Beijing in the superpower rivalry, as Washington tries to “sway Vietnam” by driving a wedge between the Asian neighbours.
While Trong’s visit and the joint declaration may be said to mark a high point in bilateral ties in recent years, relations could still face a bumpy ride, Zhang warned, as Hanoi looked set to seek closer links with Washington to counterbalance Beijing.
According to Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a Southeast Asia specialist, Vietnam is trying to invite Biden to visit Hanoi when the US leader travels to Asia for the G20 summit in Bali this month.
Thayer said compared to fears about regime change, the South China Sea dispute was a secondary issue as long as both sides were able to prevent it from disrupting mutual relations.
“This is primarily a meeting between party general secretaries and party-to-party relations will feature. Both will compare notes on their versions of socialist ideology and the threat of regime change [peaceful evolution] posed by the Biden administration’s stress on ‘autocracies versus democracies’,” he said.
Xi’s re-election leaves little doubt that Beijing is set to continue its high-handed diplomatic, economic and military tactics in pressing its claims in the maritime dispute, with Vietnam continuing to serve as an important “swing state” in the Indo-Pacific, according to Thayer.
The fact that both leaders manipulated party rules to achieve a third term in office “is the special bond that binds them together and fuels their suspicions about peaceful evolution or regime change promoted by the US”, he said.