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Vietnam-China Relations; By Carlyle A. Thayer

Protesters demonstrate in Saigon over proposals to grant land concessions to foreign-operated firms, June 10, 2018. Image Courtesy: Radio Free Asia website/ Nguyen Peng

Article No. 24/2019

Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam-China Relations,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 5, 2019

David Hutt, Asia Times: We are preparing a report on Vietnam’s relations with China in light of the likely reintroduction of the draft Law on Special Economic Zones that provoked an outcry last year when it was tabled in the National Assembly. We request your assessment of the following issues: Q1. Do you think the Party can effectively keep at arms distance the anti-China nationalism prevalent among the public at the same time as welcoming Chinese investment in Vietnam necessary for economic growth, or is it becoming an increasingly difficult problem for the Party? ANSWER: Vietnam’s leaders will continue to stifle internal criticism of China while at the same time promoting economic engagement with China. This reflects the Vietnam Communist Party’s long-standing policy of restricting but not completely censoring – anti-China reporting in the domestic media while “cooperating and struggling with China” in their bilateral relations. The most recent example of the latter is Vietnam’s dispatch of two warships to participate in ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and Vietnam’s rejection of China’s annual three-month ban on fishing in the South China Sea.

Vietnam attempts to address its massive trade deficit with China by urging Beijing to further open its markets to Vietnamese goods and investment, encouraging more Chinese investment in Vietnam, while at the same time negotiating free trade agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union, EU and the United States.

The anti-China protests last year were in response to national security concerns about Chinese investors gaining a 99-year foothold in strategic areas reserved for new Special Administrative and Economic Zones. This was akin to the national security concerns that surfaced over Chinese bauxite mining in the Central Highlands in 2009.

Anti-China sentiment in Vietnam is toxic. No doubt the party and government were taken aback by the ferocity of the anti-China outbursts last year. The draft Law on Special Administrative and Economic Zones is due to be re-introduced in the National Assembly’s seventh session from May 20 until June 13.

Q2. How do you see Vietnam-China relations playing out in coming years? ANSWER: Vietnam’s framework for managing its relations with the major powers, China included, will not alter much in coming years. Vietnam and China have elevated their bilateral relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership (the highest declaratory level). Bilateral relations are managed by a Joint Steering Committee led by their respective deputy prime ministers who are also members of their respective party Politburos. This scaffolding is reinforced by party-to-party, military-to-military and people-to-people ties. In other words, Hanoi views bilateral relations with China as much wider than the South China Sea dispute. Vietnam tries to avoid letting the South China Sea define relations with China. China has stated publicly that its negotiations with ASEAN members on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea will take three years to complete or roughly until August 2021. This process should dampen Chinese adventurism, especially as Vietnam will be ASEAN Chair in 2020.

There are two “wild cards” (1) U.S. naval presence patrols, continuous bomber presence patrols and Freedom of Navigation Operational Patrols in and over the South China Sea and (2) the health of Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. Trong will steer a steady course if he recovers and guides the party to the 13th national party congress scheduled for early 2021. Until Trong’s health issue is resolved there is some uncertainty about how a potential leadership transition will play out in Vietnam.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. The views expressed in this article are of the author.]

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