Vietnam's Show of Welcome for Xi Reflects Growing Self-Confidence

commentary

(Nikkei Asia)

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum during a two day state visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, December 13, 2023, photo by Thinh Nguyen/Reuters

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum during a two day state visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, December 13, 2023

Photo by Thinh Nguyen/Reuters

by Derek Grossman

December 20, 2023

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Vietnam last week produced a mixed bag of outcomes.

Although China and Vietnam are fellow communist nations and strategic partners, a territorial dispute has long festered between them in the South China Sea. Moreover, Hanoi has traditionally been broadly suspicious of Chinese motives.

Xi's trip, to meet with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and other top officials, was aimed at reinvigorating bilateral ties in the wake of the elevation of U.S.-Vietnam relations when President Joe Biden visited Hanoi in September.

To its credit, China convinced Vietnam to join what it calls its “community of common destiny.” Hanoi had been reluctant to sign on to Beijing's initiative to avoid signaling that it was aligning with China's vision for the region.

China's notion is that its “community”—which already included Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand—will cooperate on common development and security concerns. Some analysts see it as intended to act as a bulwark against pressure from the U.S.-led West.

Although China and Vietnam are fellow communist nations and strategic partners, a territorial dispute has long festered between them in the South China Sea.

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Vietnam, by contrast, has been frenetically shoring up ties with countries outside of this group that are suspicious of Beijing and want to help Hanoi respond to China's aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. This includes Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea.

But the fact that Hanoi signed up for Beijing's community speaks volumes about how important China remains for Vietnam. By the same token, Vietnamese state media were strongly encouraged to publicize Xi's visit. Nhan Dan, the Communist Party's official newspaper, ran an op-ed from the Chinese leader about the bilateral relationship ahead of his arrival. By contrast, Biden's visit was given little media attention.

Still, Hanoi's elevation of its China ties must be put into proper context.

Since 2008, Vietnam and China have shared a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership,” putting these ties at the highest level of Hanoi's foreign relations hierarchy. Until recently, India and Russia were the only other countries in Vietnam's “comprehensive strategic partnership” tier.

However, over the past year, Vietnam has upgraded ties with South Korea, the United States, and, earlier this month, Japan to the same level. It seems others may soon get there too, potentially including Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

The message to China is unambiguous: Vietnam is pursuing an omnidirectional foreign and security policy—a self-proclaimed “bamboo diplomacy” of strategic hedging—to complicate any future Chinese aggression, whether in the South China Sea or in the economic sphere.

Because this strategy has been wildly successful, Xi last week encountered a more confident Vietnam which is less susceptible to bullying. Vietnam thus felt empowered to elevate ties with China as a symbolic gesture to keep the partnership cordial and productive, rather than out of fear of Beijing.

Notwithstanding that, Xi's visit, his first in six years, saw the signing of a number of substantive bilateral deals, including ones on joint patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin, maritime search and rescue cooperation, railway cooperation, telecommunications, information technology, digital transformation cooperation, and linking Vietnamese infrastructure and investment projects to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

All told, 36 agreements were signed. This fell short of the 45 pacts that Reuters reported a Vietnamese official had said were in preparation, suggesting that disagreements persist. One agreement that had been expected but did not materialize concerned the mining of rare earth metals.

Vietnam holds the world's second-largest supply of rare earth reserves after China, according to geological estimates. This has made other countries keenly interested in working with Vietnam to mine and export these minerals for use in global supply chains as an alternative to Chinese sources, given moves by Beijing to restrict exports. Agreements on rare earths that Hanoi has signed recently with the United States and South Korea may have emerged as obstacles to the pact China sought.

It stands to reason that Hanoi may have concerns about the security implications of a pact with China as well. Rare earths and critical minerals are not only important for everyday items like cellphones and cars, but also for military equipment that could be used by China against Vietnam in a future conflict.

Xi's visit demonstrated the limits of China's influence over Vietnam now that Hanoi is strengthening partnerships with other strategically significant nations.

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Xi's visit thus demonstrated the limits of China's influence over Vietnam now that Hanoi is strengthening partnerships with other strategically significant nations. The China-Vietnam partnership will persist, but is not likely to flourish, and will occasionally be challenged by flare-ups in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Hanoi has real concerns about what Beijing is up to on the Mekong River, where it is building hydroelectric power plants in Cambodia and Laos that are impacting water flows downstream into vital Vietnamese farming and fishing areas.

Hanoi is also concerned over the potential leverage and access China is acquiring with Vietnam's neighbors through the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing, for example, is completing construction of a naval base in Cambodia that could permanently host Chinese ships in the future, potentially threatening Vietnam's western flank.

Yet Xi's visit also underscored the resilience of China-Vietnam relations. Hanoi still likely believes that Beijing is its most important partner, for better or worse, and this puts limits on the depth of Vietnam's cooperation with the United States. The best Washington and its allies can hope for is to provide viable and enticing alternatives to Hanoi's inescapable next-door neighbor.


Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND and an adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon.

This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on December 21, 2023. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.