Assessing Vietnam Communist Party Chief Trong’s Visit to China
Prof Rajaram Panda

In a major diplomatic move following the precedent-breaking and historic third five-year term as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the recently concluded 20th National Congress of the CPC, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong undertook a three-day visit to Beijing from 30 October to 2 November. Though the trip is rather rare for the aging leader, Trong, 78; he responded to the invitation from Xi to undertake the trip, thereby becoming the first foreign leader to visit China despite the troubled relationships between the two countries owing to the latter’s belligerence on regional issues.

As Trong concluded his visit, a major highlight was a pledge by Trong to prioritise relations with China. Interestingly, while Beijing’s accounts of Trong’s meeting with Xi said that Vietnam would not allow any foreign bases, Vietnam’s statement had no such remarks.[1]

The joint statement issued by Trong and Xi Jinping contained new section on communist-ruled states as the historic third term of Xi and the visit of Trong soon after meant that the two communist-ruled states have a special bond despite differences in many issues. It cannot be overlooked that both Trong and Xi are now serving their third term as leaders of the ruling communist party of their respective countries. It was Trong’s first trip abroad after suffering a stroke in 2019.

As regards the contentious South China Sea issue, both Beijing and Hanoi agreed to “properly manage” the dispute and join hands in tackling external challenges, including “colour revolutions” and criticism of their human rights records. Hanoi’s stance on this seems to stem from the consideration that it puts primacy in balancing amid escalating rivalry between the US and China. The joint declaration released at the end of the visit pledged that both sides push their special friendship of “comrades and brothers” to a new level.

Hanoi’s softening of stance on Beijing could have been because tensions over the South China Sea dispute have largely eased since 2019, though it remains the most challenging issue between the socialist neighbours. Both the countries claim a large swathe of the contested waterway. It is of significance that the joint declaration mentioned both Xi and Trong exchanging “in-depth and candid views on maritime issues”. Though both the leaders agreed to manage differences and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, and “refrain from taking actions that complicate the situation and aggravate disputes, time will test if Xi’s assurances are really sincere or a mere diplomatic ploy to buy time. Its salami-slicing strategy of territorial aggrandizement cannot be overlooked so easily. Vietnam needs to introspect on this matter in its future dealings with Beijing.

The joint declaration does not stop on their respective stances on the South China Sea. It goes further and both leaders 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”.

It may be recalled that an international tribunal without binding authority in 2016 rejected China’s “historically based” claims to almost the whole of the South China Sea, in a landmark ruling. Beijing dismissed the ruling as “waste paper”. In a clear 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 lengthy 6,400-word document observed: “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 challenge.” Among other significant contents in the joint declaration included pledge to deepen defence and economic ties, and to work together in “the fight against terrorism, ‘peaceful evolution’, ‘colour revolution’ and the politicisation of human rights issues”.

It could be speculated that Xi’s worldview has undergone certain change as the world is angered with many of his foreign and security policies, which is why he now invokes ideological defence based on one-party socialist system, thereby soft-pedalling with Vietnam with similar moorings. It was for this reason probably during his meeting with Trong, Xi warned that socialist nations faced “a very complicated international environment, and severe risks and challenges”, in a veiled swipe at US President Joe Biden’s framing of the US-China rivalry as that between democracies and China-led authoritarianism.

Interestingly, the joint statement did not mention of Trong’s statement that Vietnam would not allow any nation to establish a military base in Vietnam, or join any military alliance, or use of force against any country, or work with one country to oppose another. Since statements released by Vietnam did not include any such remarks as claimed by Xinhua’s account of the meeting, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to misinform the people and create confusion.

As it transpired it was rather rare for top-level bilateral documents to mention “colour revolution” and “peaceful evolution”, underlining concerns that probably both Hanoi and Beijing share common viewpoints about regime stability. If this interpretation is correct, it is entirely misleading as there could be a bigger game plan in Xi’s mind.

Trong seems to have misread Xi’s long-term strategy. This can be deciphered from the vaguely defined “transitional solutions” in the official document to their long-standing maritime dispute. The difference between transitional solutions and temporary ones, which could include joint exploration effort remain blurred.

Did Trong misread Xi’s hidden intentions before agreeing to the term in the joint statement? Trong seems to have overlooked the deeper meaning of the observations in the Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times wherein it argued that Hanoi must side with Beijing in the superpower rivalry wherein the US strategy, it argued, has been to “sway Vietnam” by driving a wedge between the Asian neighbours. There is no dispute that Beijing feels uncomfortable that Hanoi has stepped up ties lately with the US, Japan, Russia and India and therefore cajoled, as it seemed, Hanoi to play a critical role in balancing among major world powers. If Trong missed reading this, it is unfortunate.

While some pro-China analysts might take a view that the joint declaration as a turning point in China-Vietnam bilateral ties, there could be bumpy ride ahead as Hanoi is unlikely to loosen its ties with Washington as counterbalancing Beijing strategy may not be easily dropped. Vietnam seems to be keen to invite Biden to Hanoi when Biden travels to Asia for the G-20 summit in Bali in late November 2022. Vietnam shall continue to be “swing state” in the Indo-Pacific for quite some time and so long as this serves its national interests, it is unlikely to join the Chinese bandwagon.[2]

Despite suspicion and lack of trust, Vietnam has remained careful not to provoke a conflict with China over the South China Sea issue. Bilateral ties have remained largely stable but also frosty. This state of relationship is likely to continue for some time with Hanoi preferring to maintain neutrality amid Washington’s growing regional influence through its Indo-Pacific strategy. If Beijing does indeed use force to integrate Taiwan, Vietnam is likely to maintain neutrality and not join the fight from either side. Vietnam has not entered into any military alliance with any Western countries, including the US and unlike the Philippines and Singapore, has no obligation to support either side in the event of a conflict. With past historical experience of how foreign powers misused its strategic ports, Vietnam would be reluctant to lease out its military bases such as Cam Ranh Bay or Da Nang.

Despite the recent bonhomie with the US, Vietnam is unlikely to forget the bitter Vietnam war, which is why it would be wary of getting sucked into a militarily alliance relationship with the US. Going by this narrative, if Trong told Xi against his country forming formal alliance, including the ones which are anti-Chinese, it would have pleased Xi. Hanoi would prefer to have its own space in navigating its foreign policy strategy without entering into a formal security alliance relationship with any major power. While supporting the US in its stance on many regional issues, Hanoi would avoid any excessive dependence on one particular power.

Given the close relationship that India has with Vietnam and sharing of similar viewpoints on many regional and global issues, Indian mandarins need to critically examine why Trong suddenly went soft in Hanoi’s China policy and seems to be accommodating with China’s perspectives on some issues such as the South China Sea, human rights and bonhomie based on shared ideological mooring. Viewed differently, given the dragon’s surge in great power ambitions looking unstoppable, was it a new approach chosen by Trong to seek accommodation with Beijing, no matter if those compromises with some of Vietnam’s long-standing stances on many regional issues. The South block must seek answers to these troubling questions if it wants to maintain its status in keeping friendly ties with Vietnam as it could impact India’s larger policy towards Asia.

Endnotes :

[1]Cyril Ip, “China-Vietnam ties: Beijing reassured by Hanoi’s vow to reject all military alliances, analysts say”, South China Morning Post, 2 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3198034/china-vietnam-ties-beijing-reassured-hanois-vow-reject-all-military-alliances-say-analysts?utm_medium=email&ut
[2]Shi Jiangtao, “China, Vietnam vow closer ties, to ‘manage’ South China Sea dispute in joint focus on external challenges”, South China Morning Post, 2 November 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3198175/china-vietnam-vow-closer-ties-manage-south-china-sea-dispute-joint-focus-external-challenges?module=perpetual_scroll_0

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://vietnamtimes.org.vn/stores/news_dataimages/2022/102022/30/01/cfac5dd98c44a3991199bc19ceff4109.jpg?rt=20221030015540

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