Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Strategic Reset: New Golden Era of China-Vietnam Relations?

Feb 21, 2024

Vietnam ended its diplomatic calendar on a particularly high note. Just months after hosting U.S. President Joe Biden, the Southeast Asian nation welcomed  Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping to Hanoi. Greeted by a 21-gun salute and flag-waving children, Xi, accompanied by China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan, made one of his most consequential overseas visits yet. 

Xi’s relatively short two-day state visit was packed, with the Chinese leader meeting all key Vietnamese officials, including President Vo Van Thuong, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue, and, most crucially, de facto paramount leader Nguyễn Phú Trọng.

Underscoring the depth of historic ties, President Xi paid his respects at the mausoleum of Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Min, who spent considerable time in China in the early 20th century and heavily relied on Chinese communist support to oust French colonial forces from North Vietnam.

The much-vaunted visit culminated in 36 cooperation agreements, which cut across all relevant dimensions of bilateral relations. Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong hailed the visit as “a new historic milestone” and emphasized the “new positioning of relations” amid booming economic ties and growing ideological alignment.

Perturbed by Russia’s growing strategic isolation, and anxious about West-instigated “color revolutions,” communist Vietnam is doubling down on its vital though often fraught relations with China. While acknowledging outstanding differences, most notably territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Hanoi, and Beijing, they focused on a “shared future” of stability and prosperity in Asia.

From a Position of Strength

Like any mature nation-state, Vietnam operates based on a shrewd appreciation of the balance of power. Not to mention, Vietnam is a fiercely self-reliant nation. The country’s strategic culture is a product of a tumultuous history, namely the bloody anti-colonial revolt against imperial France and, shortly after, the decades-long Indo-China Wars, which heavily devastated Vietnam and much of continental Southeast Asia throughout the Cold War period. 

Accordingly, Vietnam adopted a “Four No’s” national security doctrine after the collapse of its key ally, the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s: (i) no defense alliances with any foreign power; (ii) no hosting of any foreign military bases; (iii) no siding with one superpower against another; and (iv) no usage of coercive force as an instrument of foreign policy, unless for the purpose of self-defense. 

Accordingly, Vietnam has moved on three fronts, simultaneously. First, it adopted the Doi Moi (“renovation”) pro-market reforms to facilitate post-war reconstruction and replicate a Chinese-style economic miracle. It also joined a plethora of trade and investment agreements with major economies, most notably the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a revamped version of the initially U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Program, The U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), as well as a Trade Agreement and an Investment Protection Agreement with the European Union. By and large, this strategy has paid huge dividends, with Vietnam rapidly transforming into an upper-middle-income nation within a single generation and, more recently, becoming a major global manufacturing hub. 

Second, Vietnam pressed ahead with a multi-billion-dollar military modernization program, primarily relying on its historical ally, Russia. The upshot is Vietnam’s acquisition of modern submarines, fighter jets, and a whole host of strategic weapons systems over the past decade. This has gone hand in hand with deepening defense ties with India, Israel, and South Korea. The goal is for Vietnam to develop credible deterrence capabilities, especially in light of the nation’s long-running maritime disputes with a rising China. 

On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, Vietnam has been rapidly upgrading ties with a diverse set of strategic partners. Aside from signing a major defense deal with the EU, Vietnam has also pressed ahead with cultivating comprehensive partnerships with Japan and the U.S. 

In fact, just days before the Southeast Asian nation hosted the Chinese leader, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong made a historic speech before Japan's parliament to celebrate rapidly deepening ties and signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Japan during a meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Just months earlier, Vietnam hosted U.S. President Biden, who also signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with the Southeast Asian nation. 

Deep Ties, Promising Future 

Crucially, the U.S., Japan, and the EU are all interested in not only enhancing maritime security cooperation, but also enhancing high-tech collaboration, especially in cutting-edge strategic industries such as semiconductors. Overall, Western nations are banking on Vietnam to become an economic and geopolitical counterbalance to China. 

What Vietnam is interested in, however, is not to challenge China, but instead deal with its giant neighbor from a position of strength. Historically, the two Asian nations have had often testy relations, culminating in multiple wars and border conflicts in the past millennia. But what this narrative of a “Thousand Years War” tends to miss is that Vietnam has often relied on Chinese statecraft and culture for its own national projects. 

As the prominent historian Keith Weller Taylor has argued, Vietnamese leaders were often “dependent upon a successful practice of mimicry” of their Chinese counterparts. In a recent book, political scientist John T. Sidel persuasively argues that modern Vietnam, and its successful revolution against Western powers, can’t be understood without both the ideological and material support of China-based forces.

Notwithstanding periods of high tension between the two sides in recent memory, the reality is that an increasingly empowered and prosperous Vietnam is increasingly invested in a stable relationship with China, for both ideological and pragmatic reasons.

Ideologically, Vietnam’s current leadership is more concerned with West-inspired ‘color revolutions’ and America’s ‘democracy promotion’ agenda than ever, especially as the country’s booming middle class gets exposed more and more to Western culture and values.

Moreover, Vietnam shared China’s vision of a more multipolar international system, which is no longer dominated by the West. In the two most prominent conflicts of our times, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s military strikes on Gaza, Vietnam has effectively mirrored China’s position.

The Southeast Asian nation has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Gaza while opposing Western sanctions on Russia. If anything, Vietnam is reportedly negotiating a new multi-billion defense deal with Russia in secret. The Southeast Asian nation’s shrewd leaders, however, are also deeply concerned with preserving booming economic ties with China.

Although Vietnam is positioning itself as an alternative manufacturing hub, the reality is thata significant part of Vietnamese exports are deeply dependent on Chinese inputs. If anything, Chinese investors and capital are also fueling Vietnam’s manufacturing boom, thanks to its proximity to China’s supply chains and the broader ‘Pearl River Delta’ production hub.

During the Chinese paramount leader’s visit to Hanoi, the two sides welcomed an opportunity to elevate their ties “to a new height” and agreed to “unceasingly consolidate political trust.” Vietnam emphasized how blossoming ties should be “on the basis of mutual respect, equal and win-win cooperation” as well as respect for each other’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In short, Vietnam signaled its uncompromising stance on maritime and territorial disputes with its powerful neighbor. Nevertheless, the Southeast Asian nation made it clear that it wants to keep relations with its fellow communist neighbor on an even keel, as a stable Vietnam-China relationship is vital for both nations’ long-term development as well as stability in the broader region. 

You might also like
Back to Top