Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded a three-day visit to Vietnam, making him the second high-ranking Chinese official to have visited the country since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019 and early 2020.
Wang’s trip to Hanoi came on the heels of those of the United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris, in July and August, respectively. In their meetings with Vietnamese leaders, both Austin and Harris proposed to elevate the U.S. relationship with Vietnam to a “strategic partnership.”
In Hanoi, Wang therefore had two major challenges: winning Vietnam’s approval by offering more COVID-19 vaccines and pulling Vietnam back from its growing proximity to the U.S. and reinforcing trust between the two communist parties over their disputes in the South China Sea or the East Sea as Vietnam calls it.
As expected, in his meeting with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, Wang announced that China would donate 3 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines, raising the total number of Chinese vaccines donated to Vietnam to 5.7 million doses. However, only 700,000 doses have thus far been actually handed over to Vietnam, excluding another 800,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines and medical equipment donated by China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to Vietnam following Wang’s departure from Hanoi. In addition, Vietnam has also allowed private companies to purchase Sinopharm vaccines.
China’s actual donation of COVID-19 vaccines to Vietnam has already been outmatched by the United States, which has delivered 6 million doses and provided technical assistance and programmatic support with a value of nearly $44 million, in addition to 77 ultra-low temperature vaccine freezers to assist vaccination distribution efforts in all 63 provinces.
During the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting in August, Wang informed his ASEAN counterparts that China had provided over 190 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to 10 ASEAN countries. As of 13 September, the Bridge Consulting’s China COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker included significant donations to Cambodia (26.8 million doses), Indonesia (191.4 million doses), the Philippines (34 million doses), Thailand (27.6 million doses) and Myanmar (12.6 million doses).
Earlier this week, the Vietnamese government has approved the purchase of 20 million doses of China’s Vero Cell COVID-19 vaccine, but prior to that had acquired much fewer vaccines from China. While Vietnamese leaders have hailed China’s donation of vaccines, Vietnamese citizens have been reluctant if not outright resistant to being inoculated with Chinese vaccines. A common feeling among Vietnamese, shared privately via social media networks, is that they would prefer vaccines from either the U.S. or Europe over Chinese vaccines, unless there are no other choices.
This feeling stems from a Vietnamese lack of confidence in the quality of Chinese vaccines on the one hand, and a long history of suspicion that has been inflamed by recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
In 1974 and 1988, China used force to occupy respectively the Paracel Islands and a number of features in the Spratly Islands, which had until then been under Vietnam’s control. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once acknowledged the fact that China and Vietnam had disputes over the Xisha (Paracels) and Nansha (Spratlys). Nevertheless, China has since then not only intentionally ignored the existing disputes but even moved forward to assert its claims over the majority of the South China Sea.
Vietnamese officials have taken all opportunities with Chinese counterparts to raise the issue of maritime disputes settlement. However, to date the Chinese have remained mute or toned down any references on the matter.
During his meeting with Wang, Pham Binh Minh “emphasized the importance of respecting the legitimate rights and interests of one and another in accordance with international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982.” Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son repeated almost the same words as Minh in his meeting with Wang. In response, Wang merely said that the two parties should strictly follow the high-level understandings already reached, to effectively manage disagreements and to avoid taking actions that might complicate the situation. At the same time, Wang warned that the two communist-ruled nations should “jointly caution and guard against the interference and instigation from forces outside the region,” an implicit reference to the United States.
In his meeting with Wang, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh spoke more eloquently in suggesting that:
“…the two sides need to instruct maritime law enforcement forces to strictly adhere to shared perceptions as reached at the highest-level and the Vietnam-China Agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues; to work hard to adequately handle and soundly manage the disputes in order to maintain peace and stability in the maritime environment; to work with other ASEAN nations to seriously implement the DOC, advance the negotiations for an substantial and practicable COC in accordance with the international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, ensuring security, safety, freedom of navigation and aviation.”
Wang did not directly respond to the statement.
Wang wrapped up his trip with a courtesy call on Nguyen Phu Trong, the secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the most powerful leadership position in Vietnam, to buttress the relationship between the two communist parties. Perhaps this was the most important meeting that Wang had expected as he was able to convey a message to Trong directly from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Vietnam and China are probably the only two states that maintain two major diplomatic channels – party-to-party and state-to-state –in order to address affairs of state. There is an unwritten principle between the two countries, both ruled by the communist party, that wherever a disagreement is not tackled through the state channel, it will then be handled through the party channel.
However, party friendship cannot solve the entire problem. In 2014, when China placed a massive oil-drilling platform in Vietnam’s economic exclusion zone, former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that his country would not exchange its sovereignty for a delusive friendship. Wang’s announcement of China’s pledge to donate more vaccines to Vietnam as an attempt to make Vietnam rethink any intention to upgrade its partnership with the U.S. cannot overshadow the fact that China continues to occupy Vietnam’s Paracels and some islands in the Spratlys and continues other actions perceived as aggressive in the South China Sea. Without handling these issues adequately and satisfactorily, there will remain a void of trust at the heart of the “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” between Vietnam and China.