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Bilateral relations between China and Vietnam are not as easy as it may seem. At a first glance, they may be expected to maintain a positive and flawless partnership due to the similar political system. However, a deeper analysis reveals various divergences between the two countries, whose relations are becoming more conflictual with each passing year.
China and Vietnam are both the cradle of ancient civilizations, but we can start examining their history since the two states took their current form in the aftermath of WWII.
After more than a century of intromissions and abuses from the part of Western powers and Japan, in 1945 China was devastated by war and politically divided. After a long and destructive civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, which dated back to the 30s and was temporarily suspended to form a unified front against the Japanese invasion, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949 following the victory of the Communists under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. On their part, the Nationalists took refuge in Taiwan, where they founded a state that still remains de facto separated from the mainland. Still, the PRC was weak and isolated. It had very few allies apart from the Soviet Union; whose assistance was not sufficient to spark a sensible economic growth. Virtually all the other powers, especially the United States, were hostile to China. Moreover, Beijing’s relations with Moscow soon started deteriorating, to the point that the two seemed to be on the brink of war in 1969, when a series of border clashes took place.
Vietnam also had a troubled history following the end of WWII. France, the ancient colonial power, restored its control over the country after the brief Japanese occupation during the conflict. Yet, the Vietnamese soon started an insurgency that ultimately ousted the French in 1954. Following the negotiations that ended the war, Vietnam was divided in two states separated by the 17th parallel: the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the pro-American Republic of Vietnam in the south. But peace did not last long. One year later, a communist armed movement known as Vietcong was already active in the South, where it tried to overthrow the pro-Washington government. As the situation deteriorated, the US gradually escalated its support to the South, to the point of sending combat troops in the mid-60s. But the massive deployment of forces was not enough to defeat the Vietcong supported by the North and its allies, namely China and the USSR.
By the late 60s, then, both China and Vietnam were communist countries hostile to the US. Yet, things would soon change. After secret talks, the Nixon administration announced an unexpected diplomatic opening to the PRC, which culminated in the President’s visit to the country in 1972. This move was mainly driven by a double fold strategic logic. First, the US wanted to exploit the Sino-Soviet Split to its own advantage by putting the two communist states against each other and thus increase pressure on the USSR. Second, the Americans hoped to convince China to reduce its support to North Vietnam and thus facilitate the negotiations to end of the Vietnam War; and effectively a diplomatic settlement in this sense was reached in 1973. In spite of this, two years later the North launched a full-scale invasion of the South with its regular military forces. Strained by the long and costly war, the US decided to abandon Vietnam; which was therefore reunited under the communist regime.
Since then, the relations between Vietnam and China rapidly deteriorated. On spite of the similar political system, their alignment to the USSR and other regimes in South-East Asia led them to a short war in 1979 where both sides claimed victory; but their relations gradually normalized after the conflict. Later, China started implementing economic reforms, which sparked an extraordinary economic boom that still continues today; albeit at a slower pace. Vietnam followed its example, and today it is a fast-growing economy in full modernization. In both cases, this was not accompanied by political opening, and the respective Communist parties continue being the centre of the political system in each country. But during the past decade, bilateral relations have been worsening once again over a series of issues; and the trend seem to consolidate.
The first and most important dispute existing between Vietnam and China is the one over the Paracel and Spratly islands, both located in the South China Sea, or SCS. This is very complex issue that goes way beyond the Sino-Vietnamese relations; as it involves overlapping claims by multiple countries over a strategic area for maritime trade that is also a rich fishing ground and is believed to host hydrocarbon reserves. Here it is sufficient to say that both China and Vietnam advance claims on the two archipelagos; but it is important to note that the Paracel are all occupied by the PRC. In fact, Beijing considers practically the whole of the SCS as its possession according to the “Nine-Dash Line” theory; and has been increasing its military presence in the area by conducting patrols, by expanding existing islands or even by building artificial ones, and by positioning military hardware and bases on their soil. Its activities have raised much concern in Vietnam and other riparian states; but due to their division and to the marked power imbalance in its favour, China has managed to gradually but firmly stabilizing its position in the SCS.
While this may look like a trivial quarrel over very small islets and rocks, in reality it has a major geostrategic significance. Legitimately controlling a piece of land that is recognized as an island (and not a simple rock) allows states to rightfully claim the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone around it. Applied to the SCS archipelagos, this means exerting control over vast maritime spaces that are rich in fish and that may host energy resources. Moreover, the SCS is an essential crossing area for sea trade; therefore, any conflict in the area would seriously disrupt the naval traffic with huge consequences for the global economy. Finally, over time the dispute has taken a symbolic relevance, which exacerbates national animosity and further complicates a peaceful resolution of the issue. Notably, a tense standoff between the two countries took place in 2014 following China’s drilling activities in disputed waters, and in March 2018 Vietnam decided to back down and cancel an important oil project in the area. In this sense, it is also important that Vietnam is modernizing its armed forces; with a particular focus on submarines, fighters and fire-and-forget anti-ship missiles. These are all weapon systems that would be useful in the case of a clash with China in the SCS, and it appears indeed that Vietnam is reshaping its military doctrine in this specific optic.
But there are also other divergences between the two countries. Linked to the SCS dispute, an important issue to consider is China’s economic presence in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese fear that the new economic zones established by their government will end up being dominated by Chinese investors. This has created social tensions that have erupted in violent protests in June this year, with demonstrators openly accusing China and its assertive policy in the SCS. Another problem is the question of waterways; notably the Mekong and the Red River, which both originate in Chinese territory. This has significant implications. First, it means that the PRC can control their flow; with major consequences for Vietnam’s agriculture, which still represents an important part of its economy. Second, and linked with the previous aspect, it means that Vietnam is vulnerable to water pollution generated by Chinese factories located upstream.
Another issue is China’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN; a regional multilateral organization meant to promote dialogue and cooperation of which Vietnam is part. In regards to ASEAN, China has always been careful not to discuss the SCS dispute during the organization’s meetings, where it could be put in minority by the other states. In contrast, by applying an effective “divide & rule” strategy, the PRC has been capable of dealing with the issue directly with each member; where it can negotiate from a position of force. Moreover, China is expanding its influence over all of ASEAN members; but Vietnam is resisting. This does not exclude some positive trends in Sino-Vietnamese relations. Bilateral trade is important: in 2016, the PRC accounted for 13% of Vietnam’s export for a total worth 26.8 billion dollars; and 31% of the goods that Vietnam purchased came from China, meaning 60 billion dollars in value. Also, in spite of the disputes of the previous year, in 2015 the two countries pledged to keep positive relations. Still, it is clear that Vietnam is concerned over China’s growing leverage over other Southeast Asian countries and over its activities in the SCS; and is therefore reacting.
As a matter of fact, Vietnam is building its ties with other countries in a clear attempt to hedge against China. Hanoi tries not to provoke Beijing and officially continues to apply its “Three No Policy”; meaning no alliance, no foreign military bases on its territory and no relations with a country against a third one. Yet, it is now allowing foreign navies to access the strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for supply and repair; even though it still refuses to lend it to another country. But this example shows that in practice Vietnam is fostering closer political, economic and even military cooperation with other powers like India, Japan, Australia and most importantly the US. Washington is also involved in the SCS dispute, not as a claimant state but as an international security provider, and especially as the guarantor of freedom of navigation. Considering the importance of the SCS for maritime trade, which is essential for the global economy, the US is naturally concerned by China’s actions in the region and is therefore willing to deepen its ties with riparian states to counter its influence. Vietnam is particularly important, due to its geographic location and because it is among the most powerful countries in the area. During an official trip in 2016, former President Barack Obama lifted the embargo on arms sales to Vietnam; and in March 2018 the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited Vietnam. Considering the troubled past between the two countries, these are quite notable developments.
In spite of some positive signs, the trends described above seem to indicate that economic exchanges and diplomatic promises are not enough to prevent tension. Both powers are indeed acting to secure their own national interest, with China reinforcing its positions in the SCS and Vietnam modernizing its military and fostering ties with the US and other countries. In a broader context of US-China competition, it seems that Vietnam will play an increasingly important role; but at the same time, this will put it in a collision course with the PRC, with potentially detrimental consequences for international security and for the regional stability of an area marked by territorial disputes. Only time will tell what will happen, but it seems that Sino-Vietnamese relations will follow a downgrading course in the coming years.