Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Vietnam may have been met relatively warmly by the Vietnamese political elite, but for many of its citizens, Beijing’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has ignited resentment. In the days preceding Xi’s arrival, protests demonstrating against Chinese expansion occurred in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and continued up until Xi Jinping’s arrival before being snuffed out by police.
Although steadfast allies during the Vietnam War, the relationship between China and Vietnam since then has grown increasingly complicated. In 1979, China went to war with Vietnam after the latter attacked Cambodia, which was then ruled by the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime. More recently, Vietnam has voiced both concern and anger towards territorial disputes with China, such as in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Vietnamese fishermen have been involved in skirmishes with Chinese vessels, and violent protests erupted all over Vietnam last year when the Chinese moved an oil rig into disputed territory. Scores of Chinese businesses and factories were put to the torch, and three Chinese nationals were killed before China had thousands of its citizens evacuated.
That protests were allowed to occur in authoritarian Vietnam is telling. The fact that these
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But while Vietnamese may bristle at Chinese moves to carve out a new sphere in disputed territory, it is impossible to deny that at the same time the relationship has been economically beneficial for Vietnam. $60 billion in annual trade is no small figure, after all. China has been Vietnam’s biggest trade partner for the past 11 years.
However, riots and protests are just the tip of the iceberg. Militarily, Vietnam has been provided coastguard vessels and training from the U.S. and Japan, while Russia has delivered submersibles and has allowed Vietnam to use Russian designs to build missile boats. South Korea, for its part, has pushed for more investment into Vietnam through companies such as Samsung. Earlier this year, while signing on as a member of China’s new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, Vietnam was also party to the American-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
With Vietnam making moves to counterbalance China’s rise, some see this as an opportunity for Xi Jinping to try to smooth tensions. Both nations have announced that aside from economic issues, territorial disputes will also be under discussion. Xi’s visit marks the first visit to Vietnam by a Chinese president in more than a decade.
When interviewed by Reuters, Professor Jonathan London of Hong Kong City University called Xi’s visit a “unmitigated charm offensive.” In spite of wariness amongst Vietnam’s political elite towards China’s intentions, London said that “the general view is there’s a merging crop of prospective leaders of the variety that sees international integration as an opportunity more than a threat, and has a more circumspect view of Beijing.”
These moves towards dialogue also comes amidst a recent trilateral forum held between South Korea, China, and Japan, as well as recent announcements that for the first time in 66 years, the leaders of both Taiwan and China will meet face-to-face in Singapore for a scheduled conference.
By Stanley Yu
[Images via NDTV]