When Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed Vietnam’s National Assembly on Friday, he predictably emphasized the two sides’ long-time economic and ideological ties. Beyond the diplomatic niceties, however, Xi’s strategically timed address and tour — the first by a Chinese president in a decade — tacitly aimed to influence Vietnam’s political process, including the outcome of a National Congress to be held in early 2016 where top Communist Party leadership appointments and polices will be determined for the next five years.
Xi’s arrival was preempted by rare anti-China protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which were initially condoned then harshly suppressed. Nationalistic banners called for China’s exit from the South China Sea, where the two sides have hotly contested overlapping territorial claims. Tee-shirts worn by protesters featured Xi’s face with a symbolic “X” marked across his forehead, while on-line activists circulated a petition on Facebook calling on the government to rescind its invitation. Other “No Xi” events, including a meeting of an anti-China football club, were less clearly state-influenced and brutally upended by authorities.
The erratic response underscores the divide between pro-China and pro-U.S. factions inside Vietnam’s opaque one-party politics. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s reformist and increasingly pro-U.S. faction has been ascendant in the lead-up to the congress, buoyed by his tough stand vis-à-vis China amid escalating territorial disputes. A pro-China faction, co-led by Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, has seen its fortunes sag since its perceived appeasement in handling China’s placement of a massive oil exploration rig in Vietnamese claimed waters in mid-2014.
The incident sparked anti-China riots that ransacked foreign-invested factories, killed at least three Chinese nationals, and forced Beijing to evacuate thousands of its fearful nationals. At the time, Dung took a strong nationalistic line, calling forcefully on Beijing to remove the rig and respect Vietnamese sovereignty. Thanh’s cautious diplomacy, on the other hand, avoided a full-blown confrontation, but the violence nonetheless drove bilateral relations to a nadir not witnessed since the two sides fought a brief but bloody border war in 1979.
Xi’s visit, widely billed as a bid to mend frayed bilateral ties, came at a delicate diplomatic juncture. Nowhere has China’s shift toward hard power tactics in the South China Sea been more viscerally felt than in Vietnam. China’s recently revealed man-made island-building — including features with airstrips that some analysts believe could be used by Chinese bombers to target Vietnam in a potential conflict — has raised widespread concerns that Beijing aims to militarize and control the vast maritime area’s sea lanes. Nationalistic Vietnamese bloggers have shrilly likened the expansionism to China’s annexations of once-independent Tibet and Xinjiang.
Those moves have pulled the U.S. more overtly onto Vietnam’s side of the dispute, albeit in the name of ensuring freedom of navigation. President Barack Obama raised U.S. objections to any Chinese militarization of the South China Sea during Xi’s late September visit to Washington. Days before Xi’s arrival in Hanoi, Washington dispatched a warship to within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s new artificial islands in the contested Spratly Islands. China responded by flying a missile-carrying fighter jet on a “training” exercise near coastal Vietnam.
America’s naval intervention will further boost Dung’s faction in the run-up to the congress. Dung’s allies were already well-poised to sweep the party’s four top positions, namely prime minister, president, National Assembly chairman, and party secretary general. Dung, a two-term prime minister who has survived a series of intra-party challenges, is tipped to win the all-powerful secretary general post, now held by the pro-China Trong. If so, the pro-U.S. Dung would head a unified quadrumvirate that some analysts speculate would make him the country’s most powerful party leader since the 1990s.
Dung, who has never visited Beijing during his nine years as prime minister, has moved boldly to undercut the pro-China faction’s influence, particularly over the military. In July, Dung orchestrated the transfer of Defense Minister Thanh’s top two army commandants responsible for security in Hanoi soon after Thanh was admitted to a hospital in France with a lung ailment. They were quickly replaced with soldiers known to be aligned with Dung. In another power play, Dung orchestrated an audit in September of the Defense Ministry’s extensive business holdings, including a large military-run enterprise managed by Thanh’s son, the day after Xi officially accepted Trong’s invitation to visit Vietnam.
Analysts believe Xi’s party-to-party visit sought to bolster Vietnam’s pro-China faction through economic overtures. Ahead of Xi’s arrival, China’s Communist Party Central Committee touted bilateral cooperation in linking Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” East-West trade network with the two sides’ “Two Corridors, One Economic Cycle” joint scheme initiated in 2008. In a private meeting with Trong, Xi committed to extend $158 million in loans over the next five years for the completion of a high-speed railway project. Xi also said China would seek to reduce its large and rising trade surplus with Vietnam, which hit nearly $25 billion in 2014.
Xi’s offers coincided with the public release of the text and agreements of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade pact that, if passed among all 12 signatory countries, will encompass 40 percent of the global economy. China is conspicuously excluded from the accord. Initial assessments estimate Vietnam would gain the most from TPP, with exports expected to surge by 28 percent in the deal’s first decade. It would also act to reduce Vietnam’s reliance on China as its largest trading partner, an increasingly sensitive political issue, through greater shipments to the U.S., Japan, and Australia, among the pact’s other members.
Loans for infrastructure had a stronger soft power impact at an earlier stage of Vietnam’s economic development and before Beijing asserted historic claims to 80 percent of the South China Sea. Xi failed to specifically mention the two sides’ maritime disputes in his National Assembly address, offering only bland bromides on how bilateral “tests” should be “appropriately” controlled and managed. The presence of nearby U.S. naval vessels, meanwhile, will check any temptation in Beijing to use threat of force to influence outcomes at the upcoming party congress. While Xi’s visit was well-timed to restore China’s faltering position in Vietnam, tactically he appears to have missed his mark.