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Is Vietnam tilting toward China?

Xuan Loc Doan January 19, 2017 2:46 PM (UTC+8)
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When he traveled to China for a state visit in October 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was grandly received by Beijing.

Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), was treated much in the same manner during his official trip to China last week.

Yet, while Mr Trong’s visit was aimed at developing stronger ties with China, it does not mean that the communist leadership in Hanoi is pursuing a Duterte-like pivot to Beijing.

Closer ties with Beijing

Trong’s four-day trip, which started on January 12, was his first to China since being re-elected as the CPV’s leader at its 12th National Congress in January 2016 and his first foreign tour in 2017.

He went to Beijing with a high-ranking delegation that included four politburo members in charge of four important departments in Vietnam’s one-party regime – namely central propaganda, foreign affairs, national defense and public security.

During the visit, Hanoi and Beijing reached a wide range of agreements aimed at strengthening cooperation between the two ruling parties and the two communist neighbors in various fields and at many levels.

Trong’s outing was followed by recent notable trips to the Asian juggernaut by other Vietnamese top officials – including Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Dinh The Huynh, the CPV’s Permanent Secretary, in September and October 2016, respectively. Mr Huynh, an influential politburo member, is tipped to succeed Trong if the 72-year old leader chooses to step down in the near future.

All these journeys suggest Hanoi is attaching a greater importance to its cooperation with Beijing and adopting a more friendly posture toward the latter than about six or seven months ago. A combination of factor may contribute to this change.

One of these is the fact that China is Vietnam’s closest neighbor, sharing not only land and sea borders but also many political and economic similarities with the former. The world’s most populous country is also Vietnam’s biggest trading partner. Given all of these, coupled with Vietnam’s power asymmetry vis-à-vis its giant neighbor, for the country’s stability – and perhaps for the CPV’s survival – steadying its ties with Beijing is always a priority for Hanoi.

Chinese leaders’ current charm diplomacy is also influencing Hanoi’s posture. Mr Trong was the first foreign leader China received in 2017. He was given a red-carpet welcome upon his arrival at the Beijing International Airport and an official welcoming ceremony with full honors at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 12. Five of the seven members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, held talks with him.

Mr Phuc was given a similar treatment when he toured China last September.

The warm reception Chinese leaders extended to their Vietnamese “comrades and brothers” indicates that Beijing is also highly valuing Hanoi and its relations with the latter. This, in return, is increasing Vietnam’s trust – or at least, decreasing its mistrust – in Beijing and encouraging it to develop tighter ties with China.

It seems tensions and suspicion caused by China’s actions in recent years, notably its placement of its huge oil rig, HS-981, in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014, have now eased.

Overt overtures made toward Beijing by several regional countries, particularly Malaysia and the Philippines, are another defining factor.

Last November, Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak made a six-day trip to China. During that visit, which was intended to elevate their relationship to “greater heights”, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing signed many new agreements, including Malaysia’s first major defense deal with China.

Two weeks before that, President Rodrigo Duterte also made a landmark trip to Beijing, where he eventually and solemnly announced his “separation from the US” and his “dependence” on China, after months of publicly denouncing Washington and praising Beijing.

Malaysia’s turn toward Beijing and especially the Philippines’ dramatic tilt away from its long-standing and most important ally to China’s orbit somehow influenced a rethink in Hanoi.

Like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have outstanding territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. For years, they were among the region’s most vocal critics of their northern neighbor’s expansive claims and aggressive actions in this resource-rich and strategically vital water. They all favored multilateral approaches to the maritime disputes. Hanoi supported the Philippines’s South China Sea arbitration and welcomed its landmark legal victory against China last July.

Duterte’s wholehearted embrace of China, which resulted in his side-lining of the July ruling and agreeing to enter bilateral talks with Beijing prompted Vietnam to soften its posture and improve relations with China.

Last but not least, Donald Trump’s shock rise to the American presidency is also a key reason behind Hanoi’s current accommodating posture toward Beijing.

Under the Obama administration, Vietnam and America edged remarkably closer to each other. Their stronger ties were strengthened by – and manifested in – many key developments and agreements. Prominent among these are Mr Trong’s unprecedented trip to Washington in 2015, President Obama’s milestone visit to Vietnam in 2016, during which he officially ended America’s decades-old arms embargo on its former war foe, and Vietnam’s enthusiastic response to America’s Asia pivot and the US-led TPP.

Vietnam’s strong economic and strategic ties with the US have been in jeopardy following Trump’s election victory. Faced with the imminent collapse of the TPP and other uncertainties about America’s relations with Asia and Vietnam under Trump, Hanoi is relatively readjusting its foreign policy and improving its ties with Beijing can be seen as part of such recalibration.

But not a Duterte-like shift

Yet, while becoming more receptive to Beijing, Hanoi is not bandwagoning with the latter; and this is because of many reasons.

One of these concerns Vietnam’s economic imbalance with China. Though it has dropped recently, Vietnam’s trade deficit with the world’s second biggest economy remains enormous. According to its General Statistics Office (GSO), in 2016, Vietnam exported (US)$21.8 billion in goods to the world’s largest trading country and imported $49.8 billion from it. This means it had a trade deficit of $28 billion with China last year.

For years, Hanoi has asked Beijing to help balance the bilateral trade by creating better conditions for Vietnamese goods to enter the Chinese market. It is reported that in his talk with Nguyen Phu Trong, Xi Jinping promised that China will work harder to make the two countries’ trade relations grow faster and become more balanced.

Whether Vietnam’s companies and their goods are provided with a greater access to China following Trong’s visit remains to be seen. Yet, in any case, it will take years or decades, if ever, for Vietnam to balance its trade with China. For this reason – and in order to avoid economic overdependence on its giant neighbor and to sustain its economic development – Vietnam needs good relations with its other major trading partners, notably the European Union and the US, with which it has enjoyed a huge trade surplus in recent years. In 2016, Vietnam exported US$34 billion (in goods) to the EU, its third largest trading partner, and US$38.1 billion to the US.

As America is Vietnam’s biggest export market and second largest trader, while it is unclear how Donald Trump will view and approach his country’s relations with Vietnam, it is certain that Hanoi will try its best to sustain and improve its ties with Washington.

Another reason why Vietnam is seeking better relations with the US and other powers, including Japan and India, is its unresolved maritime disputes with China.

During Trong’s China visit, both sides pledged to manage maritime differences and avoid any acts that may complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, after “candidly” exchanging their views on issue, they could not yet accept each other’s main position.

According to a report by the VOV, Vietnam’s national radio broadcaster, in his talk with his Chinese counterpart, Trong “asserted Vietnam’s consistent stance of persistently dealing with the dispute in the East Sea [Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea] by peaceful measures in compliance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and with respect to diplomatic and legal processes.”

In contrast, as manifested by its vehement objection to the Philippines’ arbitration case, Beijing has stringently opposed any legal approach to resolve the disputes. Instead, it has forcibly insisted on bilateral negotiations.

Their joint communique mentioned neither of these two positions.

Given China’s expansive claims and its past and recent actions in the South China Sea, Vietnam does not expect – though it strongly hopes – that Beijing will willingly accept a peaceful solution to the dispute based on the principles of international law, including UNCLOS. That is why it has hedged – and continues to hedge – against any aggressive move by China by forging strong ties with global and regional powers, notably those that are also concerned about Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions.

This is supported by the fact that whilst Trong was holding talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, in Hanoi Nguyen Xuan Phuc received John Kerry. The latter’s visit might not have a major impact on future US-Vietnam cooperation. Yet, in his talk with the outgoing US Secretary of State, the Vietnamese premier expressed his delight at achievements in US-Vietnam relations and Vietnam’s desire to reinforce bilateral ties. This shows the Vietnamese leadership really values its relationship with Washington.

Just a day after Trong returned from China, Hanoi received Shinzo Abe. In their separate meetings with the Japanese Prime Minister, the Southeast Asian country’s top four leaders – party chief, state president, prime minister and parliament chairwoman – all affirmed Hanoi’s desire to deepen economic and strategic ties with Japan. For his part, during this two-day visit, Mr Abe pledged to provide Vietnam with six new coastguard patrols. The patrol vessels, worth $338 million, were part of the $1-billion loan Tokyo offered Hanoi.

Vietnam-Japan relations have significantly advanced in recent years and this is mainly due to their shared concerns over China’s maritime ambitions and actions.

Such apprehensions have also brought Vietnam closer to India, China’s other key regional rival. Six months ago, before Phuc’s China trip, Hanoi hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During that landmark visit, the first official trip to Vietnam by an Indian prime minister since 2001, the two countries elevated their “strategic partnership” to “comprehensive strategic partnership” and New Delhi agreed to provide Vietnam with a $500 million defense loan.

All of these demonstrate that while it may prioritize relations with Beijing, Hanoi is also seeking stronger ties with other powers, notably the US, Japan and India, to counterbalance China, both economically and strategically. It is also evident that the Vietnamese leadership is not overtly leaning toward Beijing and submitting to the latter’s maritime position as President Duterte has done.

Following Duterte’s China visit last October, during which he publicly promised to shift his country’s allegiance from Washington to Beijing, some international relations experts, notably those from China, predicted that America’s other Asian partners, such as Vietnam, may follow suit.

Ahead of Trong’s visit last week, an article in the Global Times, a spin-off of the People’s Daily, the CPC’s mouthpiece, also suggested that the shift in diplomacy by the Philippine leader “sets a good example for the other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam.”

Judging by Mr Trong’s assertion of Vietnam’s maritime position in his talk with the Chinese leader and other diplomatic and strategic moves recently taken by Hanoi, it is apparent that Vietnamese leaders are not following Mr Duterte’s steps or “example”.

Instead, they remain firmly committed to their long-held foreign policy of independence, diversification and multilateralization that has enabled Vietnam to develop good – and generally fruitful – relations with many countries, including all the world’s major powers and the region’s countries.

Xuan Loc Doan
Xuan Loc Doan is a UK-based researcher. He holds a PhD in International Relations and researches and writes on a number of areas. These include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN, EU, UK’s politics and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.
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