Amid the strained relations between China and many Asian countries in Asia because of the former’s assertiveness, and following the unprecedented third term for Chinese President Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong will visit Beijing from 30 October to 2 November. The visit takes place at the invitation by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and Chinese President, the trip is rather rare for the aging Vietnamese leader agreeing to visit despite the old age. When Xi won the precedent-breaking and historic third five-year term as party chief, Trong, 78, sent a congratulatory message, expressing hope for “strengthening political trust, and setting a great direction for future development of the relationship between the two countries”. Trong shall be the first foreign leader to visit China and meet Xi since he cemented a third term at the recently concluded 20th National Congress of the CPC.
Since bilateral ties have remained frayed for past few years because of China’s assertion in the controversial South China Sea and intrusion of Chinese vessels into the Vietnamese waters and attacking Vietnamese fishing vessels, the significance of Trong’s visit to China soon after Xi’s third term as party chief cannot be missed.
It appears that Vietnam does not want to provoke a fight with China despite the latter’s provocations. In the past Vietnam has told a number of times that it would not hesitate to retaliate if China ever crosses the red line. That position now seems to be sobering down. Vietnam does not want to derail the booming economic ties with China. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and a key source of imports for its fast-growing economy, including raw materials and machinery for its crucial manufacturing sector. According to Vietnam’s official data, between January and September 2022, bilateral trade rose by 10.2 percent from a year earlier to $132.38 billion, nearly 70 percent of that accounting for imports to Vietnam.
Both the countries have a long history of mistrust and territorial disputes. Bilateral ties have remained complex. The two countries fought a border war in 1979. They also have acrimonious differences over their claims over the South China Sea. China claims most of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have counterclaims. Despite the differences, the two nations share a fraternal tie and maintain close communication. Both have remained officially close. Interestingly, there are some parallels in the position of party chiefs in both the countries. Like Xi now having his unprecedented third term as party chief, Trong has also stayed on as party chief beyond the usual tenure of one or two terms, cementing his influence in a party traditionally governed by consensus among its politburo and powerful central committee. His last trip abroad was to Russia in 2019. Vietnam and China are among the last five communist-ruled states in the world, along with Cuba, Laos and North Korea.
Xi had paid a state visit to Vietnam in November 2017. That was his first overseas trip on the heels of the 19th National Congress of the CPC held in October 2017, reflecting the irreplaceable importance of the ties between the two Communist states. As it happens, Trong is now reciprocating that gesture. The symbolism of this coincidence cannot be easily missed. As the Global Times observed the relationship between the CPC and the CPV has always guided and led the direction of the development of China-Vietnam ties. Exchanges by the CPC-CPV leaders are a unique and crucial characteristic of the development of China-Vietnam ties. This also guarantees that such development is always on the right track despite their differences over the South China Sea issue.
Trong’s visit indicates an inclination among leaders of two nations’ parties to sustain ties. The time chosen for the trip does not come only from Vietnam’s wishes, but from China as well. The two ideology-affiliated countries want to affirm their ties as firm as ever. For Vietnam, there was no more opportune time for a communist leader to congratulate another newly re-elected communist leader. Vietnam took this opportunity to confirm China as its most important diplomatic partner.
Both Vietnam and China have developed relations in such a way that the economies of both countries are interdependent. Vietnam’s economy has increasingly grown dependent on China. According to a U.N. trade database, the neighbours’ trade value exceeded $133 billion in 2020, more than triple the figure from 2012, when Xi became party general secretary. Vietnam depended on China to take 17% of its exports in 2020, while depending on it for 32% of its imports. Both figures were the highest since 2012.
There is a marked difference between China’s relations with Vietnam in one sector than China’s ties with other Southeast Asian nations. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data, unlike other Southeast nations, Vietnam has not imported any arms from China since 1974. Vietnam relies heavily on Russian arms, depending on the nation for 77% of its defense equipment imports during 2012-21. Despite Vietnam’s intentions to warm its ties with China, China’s unilateral claim of sovereignty over most of the South China Sea constitute the worst security risk for Vietnam. During Trong’s meeting with Xi, he is expected to mention that both sides must respect international law and together help resolve peacefully all the current issues centring the South China Sea.
Both China and Vietnam are ruled by Communist parties and have followed widespread economic reforms attracting huge foreign investments. China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy after the United States. Vietnam too has emerged as a fast-growing economy in South East Asia. Since Xi has laid emphasis on reigniting the CPC with more of Marxist ideology, it has raised concerns in China and elsewhere that the party is reverting back to Mao-era hard-core socialist policies, dialling down three decades’ old economic reforms.
All of Xi’s predecessors retired after 10 years in power, following a well-established rule. Xi is 69 years old and Trong is 78, so there is an age gap of 9 years between the two. While Trong has held the highest position in Vietnam since 2011 and was President between 2018 and 2021 and therefore could be more accommodative, Xi is likely to remain inflexible. That could be a challenge for Trong to deal with Xi. Managing ties with Vietnam could be Xi’s one main diplomatic priority with a view to offset rising US influence in the region.
In the economic front, China continues to be Vietnam’s biggest trade partner despite the negative impact brought by the severe COVID-19 pandemic. Both the countries are members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the mega regional free trade deal, which has opened a broader space for economic and trade cooperation between the two countries.
It thus transpires that Trong’s forthcoming visit to China is a correct and pragmatic reflection of Vietnam’s foreign policy and a part of its broader ties with its strategic partners. Such diplomatic move shall contribute to the development of peace and stability, besides development partnerships with nations of mutual interests. As both Vietnam and China complete and celebrate 72 years of establishment of diplomatic relations, Trong’s visit to China and meeting with Xi could pave the way for burying the irritants that have adversely impacted bilateral ties for the past few years. The economic content in bilateral ties is also likely to get a stronger spine.