22.12.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Chinese Leader Xi Jinping visits Vietnam

Chinese Leader Xi Jinping visits Vietnam

On December 12-13, Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Vietnam. This has been his third such visit since he’s been holding China’s highest party and state positions (since around 2012-2013), and the first in six years. That is, the head of the second world power does not visit its southern neighbor too often (to put it politely), even though the two countries sharing a 1,000-km border. And despite the fact that the Vietnamese leadership (mainly members of the Communist party) make regular visits to Beijing.

The difference in the frequency of mutual “courtesies” is due to the radical difference in both the “weight categories” of the two sides in the current stage of the “Great World Game” and the tasks facing each of them.

Vietnam, which has a complicated history of relations with its great northern neighbor and has lost (following the end of the Cold War) its main source of external support, has been searching for and trying to establish relations with new such sources for more than two decades. Of these, the former “absolute enemy,” namely the United States (and now Japan) happen to be the main “sources.”

India is designated in a similar capacity on the political horizon, and its increasingly visible presence in the sub-region of Southeast Asia, and in particular in the Taiwan issue has been discussed more than once in the NEO. On December 14, the leading Taiwanese newspaper The Taipei Times published an article by former Indian Ambassador to various countries Gurjit Singh on the aggravation of the situation in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole and specifically in Southeast Asia, which draws attention to the intensification of activities of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in the region. Recall that in addition to the United States, Japan and Australia, it also includes India, which, under its own (declared back in the 1990s) foreign policy strategy, the Look East Policy, has long shown special interest in developing relations with a number of Southeast Asian countries. Including Vietnam.

However, as an object of increased attention from these major players, Vietnam cannot afford to use this fact for openly hostile purposes towards China. Which, let us repeat, is today the second world power, as well as Vietnam’s direct neighbor and incidentally its main trading partner (however, with a sharp trade imbalance in favor of China).

Therefore, like all other Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam balances in the force field generated by all the world’s leading players. And each of the countries of this subregion deviates in one way or another as well as in one direction or another, from some (conditional) neutral line of this “field”. In Vietnam’s “deviations” one can see some pro-American (pro-Japanese and so on) moments.

Although not to the same extent as, for example, in the case of the Philippines, they manifested themselves during the visit of US President Joe Biden to Vietnam in early September. Washington, that is, Beijing’s main geopolitical opponent, simply cannot afford not to take advantage of the above-mentioned sentiments in a number of Southeast Asian countries.

A notable event in the developing situation in the Indo-Pacific was the trip of Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong to Japan, which took place two weeks before Xi Jinping’s visit. In Japan, Vo Van Thuong held talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on various aspects of bilateral relations, including the defense sector.

The above-mentioned “moments” in the policies of a number of Southeast Asian countries receive quite an expected assessment in China, since this subregion as a whole Beijing’s “soft underbelly.” And not only an assessment, but also practical steps, which China takes towards both its main geopolitical opponents and individual countries of this subregion that have “deviated” towards said opponents too much.

In particular, in the disputed areas of the South China Sea, various incidents with border ships of the PRC and the Philippines have recently become noticeably more frequent. The severity of the current relations between these countries is illustrated by the recent words of the Philippine ambassador to the United States about the possibility of war in connection not so much with the Taiwanese problem as with the situation in the South China Sea.

At the same time, those countries that noticeably “deviate” in Beijing’s direction enjoy particularly positive attention from it. For example, Myanmar. In this country, within the framework of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project, an extensive network of transport and logistics infrastructure and oil and gas pipelines has been created for the last ten years, connecting the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan with ports located on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. Naturally, Beijing is not interested in any sort of political destabilization in Myanmar, like the one provoked at the end of October, apparently not without “external” participation. Therefore, China has assumed the role of mediator in order to establish negotiations between the Government of Myanmar and the rebels.

Vietnam, let us repeat, is one of those Southeast Asian countries, which, despite having serious problems with China (primarily in connection with overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea), nevertheless do not risk taking a particularly defiant stance towards it. This creates a basis for Beijing to develop constructive relations with Vietnam, which gives the two countries a platform to (at least) discuss these problems.

The above-mentioned features of the current situation in Southeast Asia in general and in Sino-Vietnamese relations in particular, were reflected both in the course and in the results of Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Hanoi discussed here. There he held talks with the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, President Vo Van Thuong, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and the Chairman of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue. The main results of the Chinese leader’s visit to Vietnam were set out in a Joint Statement.

The commentators on the whole event draw attention to the vastness of the text of the final document, “which took up 16 pages,” as well as the signing of several dozen agreements affecting various areas of mutual cooperation. As for the content of the Joint Statement, the most pressing issues of both bilateral relations and the foreign policy are described in it in fairly general terms.

The Japanese publication Mainichi Shimbun highlights the entry in the preamble of this document about Vietnam’s accession to China’s main foreign policy concept, the “Community of Common Destiny,” as well as the desire to avoid confrontation over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Including by expanding cooperation between the military departments of both countries.

In the above-mentioned op-ed by Reuters, attention is drawn to the absence in the text of the main document of any mention of one of the most urgent and acute points in relations between the leading world powers, which is the issue of reliable access to sources of rare earth metals (REM). Which are a prerequisite for the most advanced areas of modern industrial production. Until recently, China was almost a monopoly on their extraction and supply to world markets, which is considered by its opponents as a potentially serious weapon in the political struggle unfolding on the world stage.

Meanwhile, Vietnam also possess large deposits of REM, which, however, have not yet been developed on an industrial scale. Thus, the issue of the nature of the organization of production and sale of Vietnamese REM to world markets acquires a clearly pronounced political dimension.

The commentary of the Chinese Global Times is, of course, fairly positive. In particular, Xi Jinping is quoted as saying that his visit represented the final stage of “China’s diplomatic efforts throughout the year.” Attention is also drawn to the significantly larger level of (protocol-) related aspects of the Chinese leader’s stay in Vietnam, compared with the aforementioned visit to Hanoi by the US president.

And yet, the real results of the event discussed here can be judged not by words (oral and written), but by real deeds that will follow both in the system of Sino-Vietnamese relations and in the space surrounding both countries.


Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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