Between October 30 and November 2, Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in a decorous affair filled with a twenty-one gun salute and Xi’s presentation of China’s Friendship Medal to Trong. Although notable for many reasons, Trong’s visit was the first by a foreign leader to China since Xi consolidated power and secured an unprecedented third term as the General Secretary. The trip signaled unity among two of only five remaining communist-led countries while resulting in more tangible outcomes like the signing of multiple economic agreements.
Despite its significance, the visit has inspired a slew of overactions claiming that this visit has brought “Chinese-Vietnam relations to [a] new stage” or “[the trip] affirms their ties as firm as ever” and “sends a strong signal that Vietnam is not going to side with the U.S. against China.” Although the visit is significant, what these hyperbolic reactions are missing is that Trong’s Beijing visit is not an aberration of Vietnam’s China policy, representing a significant shift that signals a Vietnam firmly in the Chinese camp. Instead, it signifies a part of Vietnam’s longstanding, complicated approach to China that includes anxiety and distrust while rhetorically playing up the two countries’ shared ideological and political systems to maintain healthy relations, which is underpinned by growing its security ties with the United States.
A Statecraft Rooted in History
After a long history of invasion and colonization by larger powers, modern-day Vietnamese statecraft prioritizes sovereignty and independence. Beginning in 111BC, China invaded Vietnam, which kicked off a nearly 1,000-year reign of Chinese dominance in the country. In AD 939, Vietnam achieved independence but had to contend with Chinese aggression until the French established Vietnam as a protectorate in 1883. French domination lasted until the communist national movement led by Ho Chi Minh expelled the French after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the subsequent American invasion in 1975 before unifying the country under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, unified China under the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As expected in the ideologically driven Cold War environment, Vietnam and China quickly developed close relations built on ideological fellowship and mutual trust. However, bilateral ties quickly deteriorated when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to remove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. China responded by invading Vietnam in 1979, resulting in a brief, bloody border war.
The two countries normalized relations in 1991 and have since had a cooperative relationship, particularly with economic engagement, despite Vietnam’s anxieties and distrust of its larger neighbor. In 2008, China and Vietnam upgraded their ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, a status that only China holds. Resultingly, the economic relationship has significantly deepened. China is Vietnam’s top trading partner, one of its most significant sources of raw materials, its second-largest export market, and Vietnam’s eighth-largest source of Foreign Direct Investment, which increased two-fold between 2011 and 2017.
Increasingly Negative Perceptions of China
Economic engagement is complicated by China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea as it relates to its overlapping claims with Vietnam. Vietnam lays claim over the Spratly and Paracel islands, arguing that they fall within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Meanwhile, China has openly called its claims illegal, militarized the region, built artificial islands including, 3,200 acres in the Spratlys, and prevented Vietnam from taking advantage of the resources there. Significant examples include a 2020 altercation where a Chinese coast guard vessel sunk a Vietnamese fishing ship near the Paracel Islands or when it agreed to pay about a billion dollars to two foreign oil companies after it canceled their contracts due to Chinese pressure.
Resultingly, negative perceptions of China and positive perceptions of the United States among Vietnamese remain high. The Singaporean-based think tank, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, conducts an annual survey of prevailing Southeast Asian attitudes and concerns. In its most recent survey in 2022, when asked which country Vietnamese have the most confidence will provide leadership and uphold the rules-based order international law, 56.9 percent chose the United States, while only 11.8 percent picked China. More telling, when asked if forced to choose which superpower the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should align with, 73.6 percent of Vietnamese chose the United States. In comparison, only 26.4 percent opted for China.
The most violent manifestation of Vietnamese distrust of Beijing was in 2014 after violent anti-Chinese riots erupted following China stationed an oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed territory. In response, Vietnamese leaders sent a group of ships to the area, met by over eighty Chinese boats that deployed water cannons as a deterrent, and later two other Chinese ships armed with anti-air missiles. The reaction in Vietnam, where anti-Chinese nationalism is always smoldering, was visceral. Vietnamese citizens targeted Chinese citizens by attacking them, burning/destroying their businesses, and running many out of the country. Over twenty people lost their lives, while hundreds were injured.
The U.S. as a Hedge
While Vietnam has deepened its economic engagement with Beijing, it has simultaneously hedged against Chinese aggression by deepening security ties with the United States. In 2013, the two countries signed the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, and three years after that, President Barack Obama announced the end of the U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam. This decision would mark a fundamental shift in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
Since then, Vietnam has taken part in the United States Rim of the Pacific naval exercises (despite missing this year) and hosted the U.S. Secretary of Defense every year since 2018. Meanwhile, the United States has anchored multiple aircraft carriers in Vietnamese ports and provided Vietnam with over $60 million in security assistance between 2017 and 2020. As Vietnamese Prime Minister Chinh noted during the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this year, where he extended his stay to deepen relations with key U.S. power brokers, the two countries’ relationship is “special.”
Vietnam’s security situation necessitates a strong relationship with the United States, which acts as a counterweight to Chinese aggression in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, with a robust military presence and consistent Freedom of Navigation Operations. Overall, Vietnam and the United States are aligned in their support of an international rules-based order that often puts them at odds with China, which many fear have revisionist intentions.
Lip Service Goes a Long Way
Having the United States as a hedge is critical as Vietnam strives to maintain healthy bilateral relations with China, despite Chinese aggression and unpopularity domestically and because of the sturdy economic interdependence.
This endeavor to maintain a healthy relationship often manifests in Vietnam picking and choosing its battles with China to prevent an unnecessary escalation of tension while paying lip service with diplomatic overtures. For instance, before Trong participated in the second annual Belt and Road Initiative forum, authorities directed the press to refrain from any negative coverage of China. Similarly, Vietnam has refused to take China to international court mainly because it would be an exercise in angering China for little pay off, as the Philippines found out. Its lukewarm response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and Global Security Initiative (GSI), where leaders have rhetorically shown support but failed to embrace it substantively (the majority of Vietnamese infrastructure projects that use Chinese financing date back to 2016 or before and leadership spoke positively of the GSI without committing to taking part in it) is also telling.
In the same vein, Trong’s trip was filled with rhetoric that focused on “comradeship and brotherhood” while thirteen economic agreements that steadied up supply chains were signed. Unsurprisingly, a week after the Trong-Xi meeting, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh met with President Joe Biden during the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits to extend an invitation from Trong to Biden to visit Vietnam and discuss ways to bolster the two countries’ comprehensive partnership. On the one hand, it made low-stake diplomatic overtures to its northern neighbor and secured robust economic engagement; on the other, it used the United States as a bulwark.
With this historical context, the Trong-Xi meeting is better understood not as an aberration but as something that neatly into an established Vietnamese-China policy. While Vietnam has serious concerns regarding Chinese actions and intentions, it prioritizes a healthy bilateral relationship with China, partly for economic reasons, while pursuing a security relationship with the United States to mitigate the consequences. Although the Trong visit was significant, it did not signal a fundamental shift in Vietnamese foreign policy but affirmed the longstanding tenets of its post-1991 China policy.