Credit must be given to China’s general-secretary Xi Jinping.
Xi has hit the ground of global diplomacy running within days of being freshly minted as the Communist Party of China (CPC) chief for a norm-breaking third time.
The top leaders from Vietnam, Pakistan, Tanzania and Germany landed — made a beeline, perhaps — in Beijing between October 30 and November 4 to meet Xi and the outgoing members of the CPC politburo standing committee (SC) including Premier Li Keqiang.
Only top comrade Nguyen Phu Trong, chief of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and de facto head of government, however, was accorded royal treatment: Trong had dinner, hosted by Xi, with all the seven new members of the SC lined up for him at the Great Hall of the People: Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi, the “group of 7” under Xi who will rule China for the next five years.
Trong actually edged out “iron brother” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to become the first foreign leader to meet Xi after the 20th CPC national congress, dutifully noted by Chinese official media as a sign of strong ties between China and Vietnam.
Xi and Trong, mask-less and smiling, shook hands and embraced at the Great Hall, which, according to Reuters, was an unusual display of close contact between Xi and a foreign leader, given China’s strict Covid-control rules and general diplomatic protocol.
The two leaders went on to sign 13 different bilateral cooperation agreements; Xi also awarded Trong China’s “Order of Friendship” medal for his contribution to, among other things, Sino-Vietnamese ties. (Xi’s good friend Russian President Vladimir Putin received the first Friendship Order medal in 2018.)
It’s a Communist cliché but Xi had rolled out the red carpet for Trong, 76, with whom he shares parallels in career.
Both are the heads of their respective ruling parties and are currently in their unprecedented third tenure as party chief; Xi is considered the most powerful Chinese leader since modern China’s founder, Mao Zedong, and so is Trong in Vietnam’s post-Ho Chi Minh-era; both made anti-corruption drives their signature campaigns, and, yes, neither of them likes dissent.
Given that Vietnam and China are among the last five communist-ruled countries in the world, along with Cuba, Laos and North Korea, bilateral ties are bound to be — or at least meant to be — special.
It’s complicated though.
There are hard disputes between the two countries: Competing claims of sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and a history of swaying allegiance and mistrust including wars.
In recent history, the two neighbours fought on land in 1979 and on the choppy seas when China is said to have seized what Vietnam calls Gạc Ma Reef (also known as Johnson South Reef or Chigua Reef) in 1988.
“In 1979, China invaded Vietnam’s northern border area, then after a month unilaterally withdrew. This was the opening blow of a decade-long effort to punish Vietnam for a series of moves unacceptable to Beijing,” John W Garver, a leading expert on China’s foreign relations, wrote in his book “China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China”.
Maritime disputes between the two countries continue to be a source of tension.
“Vietnam and China are involved in several disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). The first dispute and also the least serious one is the maritime boundary dispute in the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. The second dispute concerns sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, which China took over by force from South Vietnam in 1974,” Vu Hai Dang, an expert on international law and the SCS, said at a webinar organised earlier this year by the Singapore-based ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
Multilateral maritime disputes involving the two countries include the one over the Spratlys Islands, which also involves Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia.
The two ruling Communist parties have, however, remained in an awkward embrace with trade — what else — playing the eager cupid.
Bilateral trade has grown substantially over the years.
Vietnam and China’s bilateral trade jumped to $230.2 billion in 2021 – crossing $200 billion for the first time — and China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner and the second-largest export destination.
Despite recent disruptions in the supply chain because of China’s stubborn “zero-Covid” policy and dragging disputes, business and diplomatic ties have been good enough to make space for high-level exchanges and even better optics.
“It (Trong’s visit) is a clear sign to the world that China and Vietnam, the two biggest socialist countries in the world, have maintained a special relationship between both the communist parties and the socialist regimes. For China, Vietnam is not only a major partner in China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) cooperation, but also a main claimant state in the SCS,” Peng Nian, Director of the Haikou-based Research Centre for Asian Studies (RCAS), said.
That’s part of the geopolitical picture.
For Vietnam, negotiating between the US and China will be tricky and will put to test what party chief Trong said in 2021 was his country’s unique type of diplomacy: “bamboo diplomacy”.
“Like bamboo with strong roots, solid stems and flexible branches, Vietnamese diplomacy is soft and clever but still persistent and resolute; flexible, creative but consistent, valiant and resilient…,” he said at a national conference on foreign policy in December last year.
The policy essentially refers to Vietnam’s experience of balancing conflicting geopolitical interests – say between China, the US, Russia and India — over the last three decades.
Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy” has to be read together with what the country’s 2019 white paper on defence described as the “four Nos”: no military alliances, no taking sides, saying no to Vietnam being used as a military base by foreign powers, and no use of force in international relations.
For Vietnam, Trong’s visit was important to reduce China’s concerns over the fast-growing Vietnam-US relations by indicating that Vietnam treasures its ties with China, a neighbour.
Trong’s China visit will likely intensify the geopolitics in the region though, mainly in the context of the Sino-US strategic competition, if not confrontation, in Asia.
“On one hand, China will try its best to prevent Vietnam from swinging to the US, especially the close cooperation between Vietnam and the US in the Indo-Pacific strategy (including Indo-pacific Economic Framework) and the troubled waters in the SCS,” Peng said.
“On the other hand, the US has attempted to assist Vietnam, economically and militarily, in resisting Chinese economic influence and its assertiveness in the SCS and thus to contain China’s rise,” Peng added.
Where does India stand in Vietnam’s foreign policy priorities, given the chill in ties between New Delhi and Beijing?
“As Vietnam has adopted a flexible balance strategy in its foreign relations, which is also known as ‘bamboo-style diplomacy’, it will promote Vietnam-India relations. This will not raise too much China’s concerns unless the two countries conduct oil and gas exploration activities or military exercises in the disputed waters of the SCS,” Peng added.
Credit, however, goes to general secretary Xi.
Now that he has had Trong in a mask-less embrace, he can wait and watch to note which side the bamboo might sway.
Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that
The views expressed are personal