On November 9, 2017, ahead of his state visit to Vietnam as well as to attend the 25th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit held from November 10-11, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his article “For a New Vista in China-Vietnam Friendship” in the official Vietnamese newspaper Nhan Dan, expressed that both countries “need to well manage our differences and disagreements,” and categorically stated that the parties must “stay committed to seeking a fundamental and durable solution to the maritime issues acceptable to both sides through friendly consultation.” This statement by Xi reflects Beijing’s burgeoning interest to strengthen its ties with Hanoi by mitigating their differences. That is, Sino-Vietnam relations are witnessing a strategic shift that aims at consolidating their traditional friendship which the late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh defined as “both comrades and brothers.”
This comradeship has witnessed a downturn despite the socialist binding, specifically due to their 1979 border war that brought their relations to the lowest level. However, with the settlement of the border dispute, relations between Beijing and Hanoi become hostage to the territorial and maritime tensions in the South China Sea. The security dilemma over mutual suspicion and distrust made relations significantly fragile. In this regard, President Xi’s expressed desire to iron out the differences with Hanoi has added a new dimension to the frosty ties.
To note, Beijing’s diplomatic tilt towards Hanoi has come in the immediate aftermath of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (October 18-24). Since then, relations witnessed a positive upturn as noted in the high-level exchanges. For instance, on October 30, a high-level visit to Beijing by Hoang Binh Quan, the head of the Commission for External Relations of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Central Committee and special envoy of Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the CPV Central Committee, underscored a new turn in Sino-Vietnam ties. This was reciprocated by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s official visit to Vietnam from November 2-3 and most recently, President Xi’s state visit to Vietnam. Given these high-level visits and diplomatic exchanges between Beijing and Hanoi, the implications are both symbolic as well as significant.
What does these interactions signify? Undoubtedly, they help provide traction to the fragile bilateral relations, and most importantly, the top-level diplomatic exchanges between the two countries underline the importance that the countries attach to their bilateral relations. While predominantly fragile, these frequent diplomatic exchanges have set a new precedent in the building of China-Vietnam relations — suggesting a new warmth is in the making.
Here, it is important to note that this upturn in relations between Beijing and Hanoi have come at a critical juncture that holds strong political implications. First, the episode happened in the immediate aftermath of China’s 19th Party Congress, wherein Beijing under President Xi promulgated that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has entered a new era.” President Xi also stated that the “Chinese Dream can be realized only in a peaceful international environment and under a stable international order.” Second, the new warmth between China and Vietnam occurs at an opportune time that precedes US President Donald Trump’s Asia visit as well as the 25th APEC Summit. Given the forces at play, the diplomatic calculus between China and Vietnam does hold significant implications, both for their bilateral relations as well as the regional and global order.
In May, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang attended China’s Belt and Road Forum — setting another precedent for cooperation and stability in relations.
The new threshold is set by President Xi’s expressed interest in joint efforts to promote the sustained, healthy and stable development of relations between China and Vietnam. In this regard, the new leadership of the CPC Central Committee will work with the CPV Central Committee to deepen strategic communication, enhance political mutual trust, implement important consensus, and properly handle related issues. To which, Hanoi hailed the great achievement made in the 19th CPC National Congress and expressed belief that the brotherly Chinese people can fulfil the grand goals set at the congress.
Most importantly, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in meeting Wang Yi expressed Hanoi’s willingness to actively support and participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), promote the docking of “Two Corridors, One Economic Circle” with the BRI, and expand bilateral practical cooperation, so as to inject new impetus into relations between the two parties and both countries. Given this even equation, it can be rightly argued that the new CPC-CPV nexus is deemed to play a significant role in putting the relations on track, wherein, one of the primary binding factors is their Communist ideology.
In the recent past, bilateral relations between China and Vietnam have been held hostage to the South China Sea issue. As a result, the heightened tensions based on sovereignty claims, maritime rights, resource exploration, and other factors have significantly hindered the diplomatic growth and development between the two countries. Despite the string of setbacks, this relationship is witnessing a positive political upturn: the breakthrough came in January with the visit of Nguyen Phu Trong to Beijing. This visit was both symbolic and significant given the fact that Hanoi chose China as the first country for its Party Secretary to visit in 2017 and furthermore, came at the time of the 67th anniversary of establishment of China-Vietnam diplomatic relations on January 18.
What provided a new high to the relations was their Joint Communiqué, wherein both sides agreed to enhance mutual trust, strengthen their traditional friendship, and deepen their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, while helping to promote peace, stability, and development in the region and the world. Given this agenda, the Communiqué highlighted the need to: increase high-level meetings, cooperation, and exchanges between the two Parties, promote strategic connectivity, foster trade and investment ties, expand national defence and security cooperation, enhance people-to-people exchanges, and strengthen social foundations.
Subsequently, in May, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang attended China’s Belt and Road Forum — setting another precedent for cooperation and stability in relations. For instance, China has been seeking to upgrade sub-regional cooperation such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). The most notable sub-regional initiative has been the launch of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Framework which is includes five Lower Mekong River countries, of which Vietnam is one, along with Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. In view of this, the recent opening of the Longbang-Tra Linh China-Vietnam cross-border trade zone has significantly provided an upthrust to the growing cooperation between the two countries.
Given the mutual interests at play and the expressed interests of the leadership on both sides, the new warmth between Beijing and Hanoi will play a decisive role in maintaining regional as well as global stability. In this regard, President Xi’s Vietnam visit has opened a new window of opportunity between the two countries.