It is now clear that the August 26-27, 2014 visit to Beijing by Le Hong Anh, special envoy of the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP), marked an important inflection point in Sino-Vietnamese relations following the HD 981 oil rig crisis of the preceding three months.
Anh, who is also a senior member of the VCP Politburo, travelled to Beijing at the invitation of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On the eve of his departure Vietnam released a statement that said the purpose of his visit was to “promote the healthy, stable and long-term development of relations between the two parties and states.” The statement also expressed regret at the violent anti-China riots that led to the burning of Chinese factories as well as offering assurances that Vietnam would guarantee the safety of Chinese workers and companies operating in the country.
Anh met with Xi Jinping, Secretary General of the CCP and state president; Liu Yunshan, secretary of the CCP Central Committee and member of the Politburo Standing Committee; and Wang Jiarui, vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Xi set the tone for Anh’s visit by telling his guest, “a neighbor cannot be moved away and it is in the common interests of both sides to be friendly to each other.”
During talks between Special Envoy Anh and Secretary General Xi they reached agreement on three points. First, they pledged to “tighten their direct instructions [to subordinate agencies] regarding bilateral ties between parties and state.” Second, the leaders concurred that “the two sides will promote exchange visits between the two parties and states, and will restore and enhance bilateral relations in all fields.”
Third, the two leaders agreed “to seriously implement the agreement on the basic principles guiding the settlement of sea related issues,” signed on October 11, 2011. They also agreed to resume government-level negotiations on borders and territory, control maritime disputes, and “not act to complicate or expand disputes.”
Anh conveyed invitations to Xi from Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and state president Truong Tan Sang to visit Vietnam. Xi replied that he would come to Vietnam “at an appropriate time.”
The Anh-Xi discussions quickly led to the resumption of bilateral contacts, high-level visits and a meeting of government leaders. For example, on October 14, Vietnam hosted the fourth China-Vietnam bilateral conference on drug prevention and control in Hanoi. China was represented by Liu Yuejin, deputy secretary-general of the National Narcotics Control Commission.
Three high-level visits took place before the end of the year. The first visit comprised a senior military delegation, led by Vietnam’s Minister of National Defense General Phung Quang Thanh that visited Beijing from October 16-18. The second high-level visit involved State Councilor Yang Jiechi who journeyed to Hanoi to co-host the 7th Joint Steering Committee meeting on October 27. On November 10, China’s President Xi Jinping met with his Vietnamese counterpart on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Beijing.
By early December there were further straws in the wind that Sino-Vietnamese relations were gradually picking up. On December 4-5, for example, Vietnam hosted a delegation of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) junior officers. The Chinese officers visited the military-run Tran Quoc Tuan University and were later received by Lt. Gen. Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy director of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) General Political Department.
On December 9, a delegation from China’s Committee of Border Gate Management Cooperation visited Hanoi for discussion with its counterpart. The delegation was received by Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of the VPA General Staff.
During the third week of December the Vietnamese media carried reports that Vietnam’s Coast Guard had rescued two Chinese fishing boats in waters off its central coast.
The third and most recent high-level official visit took place from December 25-27 when Yu Zhengsheng, member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council, visited Hanoi. Yu was invited by the VCP Central Committee and Vietnam Fatherland Front. On arrival in Hanoi Yu stated that his trip was commissioned by Secretary General Xi and the CCP Central Committee with the objective of enhancing mutual trust, building consensus and boosting progress in bilateral relations “in a correct path.”
On December 25, Yu met with Le Hong Anh in his capacity as Secretary of the VCP Secretariat. Yu noted that Anh’s recent visit to Beijing “contributed significantly to the improvement of China-Vietnam ties.” The following day Yu held discussions with Nguyen Thien Nhan, chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front and a member of the VCP Politburo. Yu was also accorded courtesy meetings with Secretary General Trong, President Sang, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
According to Chinese media accounts, the aim of Yu’s visit was “to enhance high-level exchanges with Vietnam and promote bilateral ties along a correct path. China is willing to enhance communication with Vietnam, and deal with bilateral ties from a strategic view and long-term perspective.” None of the media reports clarified what “a correct path” meant. However, off-the-record discussions between Vietnamese officials and journalists and The Diplomat prior to Yu’s visit provide some insights.
Vietnamese officials confided that China was exerting pressure on Vietnam to adhere to three points: to halt anti-China propaganda, not to internationalize maritime disputes, and to conduct discussions on matters in dispute on a strictly bilateral basis.
Vietnamese journalists privately revealed to The Diplomat that China conveyed its objections to Vietnam’s submission of a statement of interest to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. China demanded that Vietnam keep this statement confidential and not release it publicly.
China also conveyed its displeasure over at least two points reportedly included in Vietnam’s submission. First, China rejected Vietnam’s assertion that the Permanent Court of Arbitration had legal jurisdiction over matters raised by the Philippines in its claim. Second, China disagreed with Vietnam’s reported argument that some of the disputed features in the South China Sea were not entitled to a maritime zone, including either a territorial sea or an exclusive economic zone.
None of these confidential matters were reported in press coverage of Yu’s visit, but it is clear that South China Sea issues were raised. Both sides agreed to settle their differences through dialogue.
After meeting Prime Minister Dung, Yu was quoted as stating, “The maritime issue is highly complicated and sensitive, which requires negotiations to manage and control differences. Megaphone diplomacy can only trigger volatility of public opinion, which should be avoided by both sides.” Yu proposed that both sides should “enhance political trust and build consensus, strengthen guidance in public opinion, and promote substantial cooperation in various areas.”
Yu concluded, “We are ready to beef up coordination with Vietnam, enhance personnel training and media swaps, to lay solid public opinion foundation for the development of China-Vietnam ties.”
After Yu’s meeting with Nhan, he stated “the CCPCC (Chinese Communist Party Central Committee) is willing to work closely with the VFF (Vietnam Fatherland Front) to earnestly fulfill the MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) regarding our cooperation from 2014-2019.” Both the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council and the Vietnam Fatherland Front are tools of their respective communist parties for mobilizing public opinion in favor of regime policy.
On his final day in Vietnam Yu laid a wreath at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and attended the official opening of the Confucius Institute at the University of Hanoi.
Three days later, in a further sign that bilateral relations were moving in a positive direction, Vietnam hosted a meeting between the directors of China’s Peacekeeping Office and Vietnam’s Peacekeeping Center, both located in their respective ministries of national defense. The Chinese delegation was received by Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of the VPA General Staff.
General Tuan supported future cooperation between Vietnam’s Peacekeeping Center and China’s Peacekeeping Office such as “sharing information, and bettering mechanisms for peacekeeping activities and policies.” Tuan further noted that international cooperation in peacekeeping was one of Vietnam’s important goals in defense diplomacy for 2015 and requested Chinese assistance.
The recent uptick in China-Vietnam relations has been given low-key attention by the Vietnamese media in order not to inflame further Vietnamese domestic anti-China sentiment. Domestic critics charge that government and national leaders have been ineffectual in standing up to China. They further charge that ideology is a flimsy basis for a firm bilateral relationship and Vietnam should “exit China’s orbit.”
According to VCP statutes the Central Committee should meet twice a year. It is not unusual for the Central Committee to convene three times in a calendar year. But in 2014 only one meeting of the Central Committee was held. The ninth plenum took place in May during the HD 981 oilrig crisis. The tenth plenum was reportedly brought forward to August only to be postponed to October, after China withdrew the oil platform in mid-July. The tenth plenum was later rescheduled for December.
Hanoi-based diplomats report that the long-delayed tenth Central Committee plenum is tentatively scheduled to be held from January 5-15. This meeting will focus on two important inter-related issues: an inaugural vote of confidence in high-level party leaders and their handling of relations with China in light of the HD 981 crisis. No doubt Central Committee member will carefully scrutinize understandings and agreements reached during Yu’s visit.
Recent exchanges between China and Vietnam indicate that both sides are committed to lowering tensions caused by the HD 981 crisis. China is particularly concerned to reset relations in order to take the wind out of the sails of those in Vietnam advocating “exiting China’s orbit” and to reassure regional states that China is committed to the peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes. Beijing is offering to step up relations in a wide variety of areas to demonstrate that there is more to gain by cooperating with China than opposing it.
Both Chinese and Vietnamese leaders realize that their respective communist parties are the key constituencies for promoting stable bilateral relations. Both sides stress the importance of obtaining consensus at the highest leadership level on what steps to take to restore the status quo ante. Both sets of leaders want to ensure that subordinate party and government agencies, including the armed forces, fall into line behind this policy.
Both sides recognize that domestic public opinion could act as a wild card and disrupt attempts to restore and develop bilateral relations. Yu Zhengsheng’s visit was important in this regard because it opened up channels for both sides to engage in propaganda and education mass line (or mass mobilization) activities among their domestic audiences. The scene is being set for a visit by General Secretary and President Xi Jinping to Vietnam this year. No doubt Hanoi would be pleased also to host a visit by President Barack Obama before he steps down from office.