The head of Vietnam’s communist party has been received with unusual levels of pomp and ceremony during his three-day state visit to Beijing, during which China’s leader Xi Jinping said the two ruling parties should “never let anyone interfere” with their progress.
According to state media reports from both countries, China yesterday received Nguyen Phu Trong and his delegation with the rare gesture of a 21-gun salute on his arrival for a three-day visit. Trong and Xi Jinping then shook hands and embraced before taking part in a televised welcome ceremony in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, against a field of outsized Chinese, Vietnamese, and communist party flags.
Trong is the first foreign leader to greet Xi Jinping since he won a mold-breaking third five-year term in power at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last month. The two party leaders met last back in November 2017, when Xi visited Vietnam to attend the APEC Summit in Danang.
As one observer noted on Twitter, the Vietnamese delegation that accompanied Trong was not only unusually large, “but dominated by officials involved in the party and national security affairs.” These reportedly included both Minister of Public Security To Lam and Defense Minister Phan Van Giang.
Notably, Xi also awarded his Vietnamese counterpart the Friendship Medal of the PRC, which according to the state-run Global Times, “is bestowed on foreigners who have made outstanding contributions to China’s socialist modernization, the promotion of exchange and cooperation between China and foreign countries.”
The atmosphere of mutual regard took on strategic overtones in Xi’s comments to Trong, during which he said that Vietnam, China, and their respective ruling communist parties should stand firm against foreign (i.e. U.S.) interference.
“The development of the cause of human progress is a long and tortuous process, and the development of socialist countries faces a very complicated international environment and serious risks and challenges,” Xi reportedly said, according to the state broadcaster CCTV.
“The Chinese and Vietnamese parties should persist in working for the happiness of the people and the progress of mankind, push forward socialist modernization with all their might, and never let anyone interfere with our progress or let any force shake the institutional foundation of our development.”
Chinese state media drove the point home by opining that the special relationship between Vietnam and China, rooted in their party-to-party ties, was “beyond certain countries’ comprehension.” This was an obvious veiled reference to the U.S., which it accused of trying “to drive a wedge between China and Vietnam,” adding that this effort “hasn’t obstructed mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Vietnam.”
Meanwhile, Vietnamese state media reported that Trong’s trip to Beijing would bring bilateral relations “to a new stage of development.”
All of these comments should be taken with a grain of salt, as part of the rituals that accompany party-to-party relations between the two communist neighbors. The florid ceremonials would nonetheless be curious for anyone prone to viewing the growing strategic competition between China and the United States in starkly binary terms.
As I noted last week, despite the two nations’ maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and a history of resistance to Chinese power that infuses Vietnamese nationalism, the two governments are still bound by several shared interests. Leaving aside the claims to eternal socialist brotherhood, Vietnam is enmeshed in China-centered supply chains, and the two communist parties share a common desire to preserve their rule in the face of what both perceive as Western-led efforts at regime change or modification.
Of course, this week’s mutual praise does nothing to override the large areas of disagreement in the relationship. But it is a reminder that at a time when many in both China and the West are adopting monochrome views of strategic competition, Vietnam’s relationship with China remains a confusing mash of gray.