By Dr Subhash Kapila*
Chinese President Xi Jinping as Vietnam’s geographically oversized, militarily dominating and aggressive, politically over-bearing and coercive Northern neighbour will be on an invitational visit to Vietnam on November 5-6, 2015 against the contextual background of China’s marked conflict-escalation in the South China Sea ever since President Xi Jinping assumed the Chinese Presidency.
Under President Xi Jinping, China forcibly sent last year the Chinese oil drilling rig HSY 961 into Vietnamese waters generating conflictual maritime clashes and more notably in brazen defiance of international conventions commenced the large scale construction of ‘Artificial Islands” in the South China Sea waters disputed by Vietnam and the Philippines; and further it has converted these artificial creations into military garrisons with military airstrips, naval facilities and other military infrastructure. Surely, such militarily provocative actions are not the manifestation of a friendly neighbour intent on improving relations with Vietnam or at the least initiating a process to do so.
To this context must be added yet another dimension of eruption of violent anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam following Chinese aggressive provocations in the South China Sea. This only reinforced the historical animosities of the Vietnamese peoples against China.
“Severe Strategic Distrust” would be a mild word to describe the true state of Vietnam’s relations with China in the second decade of the 21st Century. Without naming Cinna, Vietnam had averred to this aspect at the Shangri La Dialogue two years back
Vietnam’s geographical tyranny has left it with limited options but to be civil to China, which also happens to be a Communist neighbour, that was markedly absent in the traditional ‘fraternal ties’ that should have prevailed between two Communist countries.
President Xi Jinping’s visit comes after 10 long years since the last Chinese President visited Vietnam, which itself is an indicator of the fragility of China-Vietnam ties. A number of analytical questions come to the fore, therefore, contextually.
The first major analytical question that arises is the purpose of the Chinese President’s visit to Vietnam at this juncture? Is the Chinese President’s visit aimed and designed to transform, or as the Americans term it, to “reset” China-Vietnam relations? Or, is the present Chinese President’s visit to Vietnam a diplomatic ‘proforma visit’ to impress the ASEAN countries of its reasonableness, when China combines the Vietnam visit with a follow-up visit to Singapore?
Taking the second question, first, it needs to be pointed out that if the Chinese President’s current visit to Vietnam was aimed at a “reset” of China-Vietnam relations, then, it should have been a Vietnam-specific visit to add diplomatic and political finesse’. Combining his visit with a visit to Singapore, the Chinese President is signalling to ASEAN countries that China has no problems with ASEAN, but only with Vietnam. Also, Singapore is scheduled to head some ASEAN initiatives on ASEAN –China relations and therefore an attempt to modulate ASEAN summations on China.
Addressing the first question now, it needs to be noted is that the present timing of the Chinese President’s visit to Vietnam is significant for a number of major reasons. The first major reason is that Vietnam’s 12th Party Congress is scheduled at the beginning of 2016 in which Vietnam will be electing an entirely new leadership. At this juncture, the Chinese President would get the opportunity to interact and impress on the incoming leadership China’ genuine (?) intentions to transform relations with Vietnam. It could end up as a vain attempt unless the Chinese President in his long term ‘strategic vision of future course of China-Vietnam relations’ offers some substantial concessions on the South China Sea disputes with Vietnam.
Further, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and the East Asia Summits are due to follow and the Chinese President’s visit may be aimed to soothe Vietnam’s frayed nerves after the heightened tensions of the last year or so. Vietnam’s joining the Trans Pacific Partnership led and sponsored by the United States is also a Chinese concern.
More significantly, it needs to be highlighted that China seems to have up-staged and pre-empted the US President’s visit to Vietnam in November 2015. Till last month, media reports were active as to a fine-balancing diplomatic act Vietnam would have to resort to host two visits in quick succession of the US President and the Chinese President within weeks of each other in November 2015. In fact there were no reports of finalised dates of Chinese President’s visit to Vietnam, till recently.
It is now learnt that the US President would visit Vietnam early next year, presumably after the new Vietnamese leadership is installed. In a way that may work out better for Vietnam-US relations after President Obama would have attended the two Summits mentioned the Philippines and Malaysia.
Some media reports highlight that there is a growing public opinion in Vietnam that in view of China’s increasing conflict escalation on South China Sea disputes and issues, it may be more prudent for Vietnam to discontinue its fine-balancing of its foreign relations between China and the United States. Vietnam should therefore opt for an open strategic partnership with the United States provided that the United States is ready to make unequivocal commitments on the same.
The ball is in the United States court to take a call on. If in 1972, the United States could “reset” relations with China, there are more cogent strategic imperatives for the United States to “reset” relations with Vietnam and transform it into a full-fledged strategic partnership.
Concluding, one is constrained to observe that China-Vietnam relations can only be truly “reset” by China when China restores the status-quo ante on the Vietnamese sovereignty of Paracel Islands and Spratlys Islands under illegal Chinese occupation and resile from its declarations of the Nine Dash Line and the South China Sea as China’s Core Interest, implying that it is China’s Inland Sea. This is unlikely to happen and Vietnam has to audaciously explore bilateral and multilateral countervailing options so that China’s aggressive activities against Vietnam are restrained.
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]