Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong had the distinction of being the first foreign leader to visit China after Xi Jinping secured a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
While the two countries have had a long, conflicted relationship, the Hanoi leadership may be gambling that they can have it both ways. The diversification from China by Western firms has resulted in Vietnam receiving new investment flows. Amid China-U.S. tensions, factories based in China have now moved to Vietnam. This has created a tailwind for Vietnam’s economic prospects.
At the same time, Vietnam’s communist leaders seem to view Beijing as a bulwark for maintaining their autocratic system. In an editorial published Thursday, the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned media outlet, noted that there is an “upper limit” to U.S.-Vietnam relations despite how hard Washington tries to pull Hanoi into its orbit. While this nationalistic tabloid is often known for its shrill tone, it’s probably not far from the truth when it notes “Hanoi is unlikely to get too close to Washington due to differences in ideology.”
It’s precisely because of ideology – nostalgia for the Soviet Union and an odd solidarity with Beijing – that the Hanoi government has been largely silent on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Vietnamese government has abstained on every vote this year in the United Nations General Assembly affirming Ukraine’s sovereignty despite Vietnam’s clear interest to align with an international system where countries respect the U.N. Charter and bigger nations don’t bully smaller neighbors.
Out of deference to Beijing, Nguyen Phu Trong reportedly vowed to reject all military alliances and not allow any foreign bases on Vietnamese soil. To be sure, this has long been Vietnam’s default position. But for the time being Trong has gone further than any other communist Vietnam leader in prioritizing relations with China. The latest joint statement, unlike previous iterations, pledges to “defend the party and the socialist regime in each country in the new situation.”
It was probably because of these sentiments that Xi awarded Trong with the Friendship Medal. Trong became just the tenth person to receive this highest award from the People’s Republic of China.
The response on Vietnamese social media has been scathing. One Facebook user remarked: “We thought Trong would go over there to demand our islands back” – a reference to contentious maritime disputes in the South China Sea – “but no he went there to receive a medal.” Others commented on Trong’s apparent obsequiousness as seen by his two-handed handshake with Xi – which in Vietnamese culture is usually behavior by a junior official when greeting a more senior person.
The “Vietnamese street” and especially the activist community is known to be anti-China. They tend to view China as a dire threat to Vietnamese sovereignty and an impediment to the country’s political opening. In the several surveys on popular views toward China, conducted by outside entities such as the Pew Research Center and the BBC, the share of Vietnamese respondents with a favorable view of China has been 10 percent or less.
But the Vietnamese Communist Party apparently feels differently. Interestingly when Nguyen Phu Trong departed Vietnam for China on October 30, almost the entire Politburo came to the airport to wish him a successful trip. Both the state president and prime minister presented Trong with a large bouquet to signify their support. For Vietnam’s communist leadership, closer ties with Xi Jinping’s China is a good thing.