From January 12-15, China warmly hosted its first foreign leader in 2017: the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) chief, Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong. This was also Trong’s first China visit since he was re-elected chief of the CPV last year and his first foreign trip in 2017 as well. Because of this, Trong’s official visit to Beijing reveals the importance both sides attach to their partnership. When Chinese President and General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping held a state-level welcoming ceremony for Trong, and then joined him for talks in Beijing, the two communist leaders signaled a major step forward in the dramatic shift that is changing the game both in the South China Sea competition and in Vietnam’s domestic politics.
According to Vietnamese news media, the four-day visit resulted in a joint communiqué, which among other points stressed upholding mutual political trust and both sides’ commitment to deepening their all-around strategic cooperative partnership. Trong’s trip and the sharply increased mutual trust it reflects will rehabilitate China-Vietnam ties in the near future after a few years of remarkable disruption.
From the standpoint of strategists, the significance of Trong’s visit lies more in what it symbolized than in what was said. For China, it means that the strategic gains from a resurgent brotherly relationship with Vietnam may be outweighing the strategic and political costs of threatening its neighbor, which has recently stepped up its military modernization program and signaled interest in forging security relations with the United States.
For Vietnam, the trip will re-consolidate the pro-Chinese faction’s ruling position, which had been more or less undermined during the rise of pro-Western reformers led by the Dung government in past years. Trong’s trip will affect the rebalance of power among the country’s elites in favor of the conservatives at the expense of the reformists. The pro-Western faction has been in decline since the 12th National Congress held a year ago. The visit also signals that Hanoi seems to anticipate certain obstacles to its partnership with Washington under President Trump, particularly now that he has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
However, the underlying causes of the recently revived China-Vietnam ties actually come from the same determinants that constitute their traditional relationship, rather than recent developments in domestic politics in both Vietnam and the United States. In this respect, it’s worth looking back at the recent ups and downs of China-Vietnam ties to understand the current renewal, and thereby unravel the future of the Washington-Hanoi-Beijing triangle.
In terms of geographical proximity, Vietnam can’t choose its neighbors, but can only choose its friends. Having long shared its destiny with neighboring China, Vietnam does understand that the stronger China gets, the more serious a potential threat Vietnam faces. The most recent proof that China has historically been the most serious source of Vietnamese insecurity came via the short yet devastating wars that China waged against Vietnam in 1979 and 1988. Because of this, when China began to intensify its military presence on its occupied features in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, moves which appeared to seriously threaten to Vietnam’s national defense, Hanoi had no choice but to mobilize.
Hanoi began to reach out to extra-regional powers to broaden its options. Starting in 2009, the pro-Western administration under then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung began to publicly challenge China’s “nine-dash line” claims over the South China Sea by transferring submissions concerning the southern part of the South China Sea to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). At the same time, Vietnam moved to modernize the country’s defense capabilities through multibillion-dollar arms deals with Russia, the Netherlands, Israel, and India for submarines, maritime surveillance planes, high-end rockets, and frigates.
In response to this, China has unilaterally launched a series of aggressive measures, including repeatedly attacking and illegally detaining Vietnamese civilian boats in disputed waters. In mid-2014, Beijing deployed its oil-drilling rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981), in waters 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast, violating Vietnam’s 200-nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf set by international law. The HD-981 incident was regarded as a litmus test and a game changer in Vietnam. It gave U.S.-Vietnam relations a helpful jolt while significantly deteriorating the two socialist countries’ nominally brotherly ties to a significant degree. China-Vietnam relations were believed to have passed the point of no return.
Developing its relations with the United States can help boost the communist regime’s legitimacy in Vietnam by furthering national interests, and benefiting domestic enterprises in a wide range of labor-intensive sectors, such as the garment industry and electronics. Some Vietnamese observers believed that the immense transformation in the nature of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, highlighted by Trong’s 2015 visit to Washington and Obama’s Vietnam visit in May 2016, could embolden Hanoi to be more confrontational with China in the disputed South China Sea.
However, post-12th National Congress China-Vietnam ties have proven that Hanoi is more focused on practical strategy than joining any geopolitical ventures. Vietnam definitely does not intend to contain or estrange itself from China through increasingly looking to other outside powers for diplomatic and military support. Thus, the recent party-level meeting between Trong and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, appeared to revive their traditional close relations, which are underpinned by the “tyranny of geography,” in the words of Professor Carlyle Thayer, and the intertwined socialist cause.
But there are other reasons behind this constant relationship as well. For China, Vietnam is of strategic importance, especially in terms of Chinese security and the economy. For Vietnam, although the country enjoyed a slight trade surplus with G20 economic markets in recent years, the perennial trade deficit with China remains rampant. Furthermore, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) and overseas development assistance (ODA) investors have long been dominant in Vietnam, rooted firmly in the country’s industrialization process. This makes the country’s fast-growing market highly vulnerable to any ripple effects, or even retaliation, in bilateral trade ties stemming from its confrontation with China. For example, China’s unilateral deployment of HD-981 into Vietnam’s EEZ might have cost Vietnam’s economy $1-1.5 billion, according to Vietnamese state media.
For these reasons, it is hard to imagine how many political resources would be needed to tempt the two brotherly neighbors to turn their backs on each other. Of course, China and Vietnam faced off during the 2014 HD-981 standoff and Hanoi has publicly gotten closer to China’s rival states, including the United States, Japan, India, and the Philippines, to deter China’s aggressive measures. But party-to-party ties and the growing, though asymmetrical, economic interdependence between them play a key role in inclining both sides to give timely handshakes to each other to ease bilateral serious tensions.
Apparently, China and Vietnam both understand, as an old Vietnamese saying goes, that “a stranger living nearby is better than a relative living far away.” During World War II and for some two decades afterward, the profession of the shared ideals of socialism and the common story of struggling for national independence and liberation brought two states closer together. But being neighbors, disputes between China and Vietnam may be inevitable, and the late-Cold War rivalries and maritime ambitions in the South China Sea have pulled the two countries into deadly conflicts since 1974.
However, considering all the history and hurdles that China and Vietnam have already overcome, it is worth observing that despite a huge disparity in economic and military capacity vis-à-vis China, Vietnam has never been reliant on any country to combat China. While Vietnam understands its vulnerabilities with respect to China and more progressive voices in Hanoi want to see greater cooperation with the United States in the years ahead, its leaders remain stuck to the country’s “Three Nos” defense policy: no military alliances, no foreign military bases in Vietnam, and no reliance on one country to fight another country. Thus, all efforts to form cliques with Vietnam will be in vain if any extra-regional power intends to utilize Vietnam to contain China.
Positive Prospect for the South China Sea Issue
Although currently there may be no way for a South China Sea demarcation exercise to proceed, mostly due to the unsettled status of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, in recent years China and Vietnam have made remarkable progress in demarcating of waters beyond the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. In addition, both sides also reached an Agreement on Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement of Sea-Related Issues in October 2011, when Trong’s visit to Beijing came to an end. The 2011 Agreement, which outlines several principles to address maritime issues, has been functioning as a de facto “code of conduct” for the two disputants, deterring China from using military force or coercion to settle disputes and preventing escalation to conflict from tensions such as those surrounding the HD-981 incident. Therefore, Trong’s 2017 visit to Beijing, followed by a new comprehensive joint communiqué, may be considered to as a stability and peace guarantee over their bilateral disputes in the South China Sea at least for a few years to come.
More importantly, as prescribed in the joint communiqué, China and Vietnam once again emphasized their strong commitment to (i) the proper manner of managing differences and incompatibilities over disputed waters, through peaceful bilateral mechanisms within multilateral frameworks and fora, (ii) continue to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and (iii) actively work toward the early formation of a Code of Conduct (COC) on the basis of consensus and consultation. Apparently, such a re-consideration of the basic approach to dispute management by both sides fits neatly into the “dual-track” approach championed by Brunei last year. Given this, the deadlock at China-Vietnam talks over their disputed waters may be dispelled in the near future as Hanoi is likely to take this approach into account in addressing the Sino-Vietnamese portion of the South China Sea disputes through direct negotiation with China where applicable.
Hydropolitics: A New Challenge to Resurgent Sino-Vietnamese Relations
Nevertheless, while waiting to see how much closer these brotherly states move toward each other after a few years on the “wrong track” and how this trend affects the power competition in the South China Sea, it’s also worth acknowledging another complicated and intractable issue, which appears poised to challenge the stability of China-Vietnam relations in the immediate future.
That issue is Chinese-backed mainstream dam-building projects on the mighty Mekong River, both within Chinese territory and in other Mekong Basin countries. The historical drought that occurred in the 2016 dry season, coupled with decreased water flows from the upstream Mekong River due to these mainstream dams, exacerbated inland salinity intrusions in Vietnam. This generated extreme stress on freshwater supplies for millions of people, especially those who live in rural areas and closer to coastal areas, among other huge damages in terms of agricultural output in Vietnam’s most important “rice bowl,” the Mekong Delta. In the clash between the Chinese government trying to meet the huge demand for electricity from a growing population in energy-hungry urban centers, and the need to protect and preserve the Mekong’s ecological riches and fisheries, conservation and food security are clearly losing.
For Vietnam’s lower Mekong Delta, these Chinese-owned dams pose an emerging yet dire threat to the region’s future survival. Its 20 million inhabitants have long been dependent on agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods, with very little margin for error. During the 2016 double disaster, the slow and reluctant move by Chinese government to discharge water to alleviate the drought along the Mekong tarnished Beijing’s image among the Vietnamese public in particular and reveals a vast gap between China’s words and deeds. After all, when Xi gave 20-minute speech in the Vietnamese Parliament House in 2015, he pledged that China and Vietnam are long-lasting “trusted comrades” and “good neighbors” who “must trust and help each other to move forward together.”
It is important to note that Vietnam has been among China’s largest sources of rice imports since the 1991 normalization, and nearly 80 percent of Vietnam’s total rice exports are produced in the Mekong Delta. This means the region’s decreased agricultural output, mainly due to impacts from Chinese dams, may in turn narrow China’s options for cheap agricultural imports in the long term. Nonetheless, the probability of an emerging water war along the Mekong, fostered by China acting as a “water tyrant,” in Margaret Zhou’s words, runs the clear and present risk of irreversibly antagonizing Vietnam. Chinese leaders can speak from the position of China’s own interests, but Vietnam’s interests cannot be pushed aside if both sides remain determined to move forward with a sincere and fraternal comradeship.
The current conflict over water resource in the Mekong River appears to be another litmus test for China-Vietnam ties. This issue challenges Beijing as well as Vietnamese leaders as the people in both countries expect them to show their skill in this balancing game – maintaining close diplomatic ties while at the same time protecting their own national interests in the water war – even though these motives contradict one another. It is self-evident that the water war is different from the South China Sea dispute in many aspects, but the analogy can shed some light on how fierce the threat can be when a big power seeks to realize its ambitions by all means.
In the absence of a legally-binding mechanism in the Mekong River Commission, Vietnam should not wait for any “water savior” to emerge in its upstream neighbors; rather it will have to further upgrade relations with Washington, in part due to the desire for greater access to the U.S. market and in part due to worries about China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia. Vietnam can actively participate in the U.S.-led Lower Mekong Initiative to advanced Mekong subregional integration and find a way to address the upstream dam construction. This is also a key opportunity for the new Trump administration to show their determination to curb Chinese “run-of-the-river” aggression in the Mekong.
Nguyen Minh Quang is a lecturer at School of Education, Can Tho University, focused on Conflict Studies and Environmental Security issues in Southeast Asia. He is currently studying Polish language at the Polonicum Center, University of Warsaw, Poland. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of Can Tho University.