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Hanoi Embraces Future With China to Reassure Beijing, Experts Say 

Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong, sixth left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, eighth right, meet at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, Dec. 13, 2023. (Pool/AP)
Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong, sixth left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, eighth right, meet at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, Dec. 13, 2023. (Pool/AP)

Foreign policy experts are casting a skeptical eye on this week's highly publicized upgrade of relations between China and Vietnam, saying Hanoi is unlikely to shift from a carefully balanced foreign policy that includes recently strengthened ties with the U.S. and Japan.

Vietnam agreed to join Beijing's "community of shared future" during a two-day visit to Hanoi by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The community is ostensibly an upgrade from the already top-level "comprehensive strategic partnership" binding the two nations, according to the official Chinese news outlet, Xinhua.

Top-tier diplomatic ties have been in place between Vietnam and China since 2008, but Washington and Tokyo just achieved the same status with Vietnam during U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to Hanoi in September and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong's trip to Tokyo last month.

In an article published in Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Xi laid out his vision of the community as one linking China's development to that of its neighbors so that each country is better off. Xi also stressed that Asia's future is in the hands of Asians.

Vietnam obtained immediate rewards from 36 cooperation documents signed on Tuesday by party leader Xi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Phu Trong. These include wider access to the Chinese market, Chinese funding for a cross-border rail link and a hotline to deal with fishery incidents in the South China Sea.

China has long been Vietnam's top trade partner, with bilateral volume last year topping $175 billion. It is also the fourth-largest foreign investor in Vietnam.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese nationals made up the largest group of tourists in Vietnam, accounting for one-third of foreign tourists in 2019.

But relations between China and Vietnam have been rocky. The two countries fought a bloody border war in 1979 and clashed over an island in the Spratly chain in 1988 before normalizing ties in 1991.

Beijing and Hanoi remain locked in a territorial dispute over the South China Sea, with Vietnam expanding its island-building efforts to counter China's claims of sovereignty.

VOA reached out to the Vietnamese Embassy in Beijing for comment but was directed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which did not respond to VOA's questions.

'Face-saving trip'

A U.S. State Department spokesperson responded to the upgrade in Hanoi-Beijing relations, saying Vietnam "has long been a critical partner [of the United States], and our bilateral relationship has only deepened."

"The United States and Vietnam have a shared sense of purpose and a common vision for a secure, prosperous and open Indo-Pacific, spanning from our close collaboration on war legacy and humanitarian issues to regional security, shared prosperity, deepening cooperation on tackling the climate crisis, infectious diseases, illicit trafficking of drugs and wildlife, strengthening maritime cooperation and combating transnational crime," the spokesperson said.

Greg Poling, director of the Southeast Asian program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, made light of the upgrade, describing Xi's visit to Hanoi as "a face-saving trip ... that results in a lot of rhetoric but little concrete."

He noted in an email to VOA Vietnamese that Hanoi initially resisted the idea of the upgrade but "ultimately felt it necessary to compromise on this point in order to maintain some stability."

Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, described Hanoi's acceptance of Xi's invitation to join the community as a rebalancing after significant leaps in diplomatic ties with the West.

"Hanoi wanted to reassure Beijing that they would not abandon China to defect to the other camp, nor join forces to contain China," Giang told VOA Vietnamese over the phone.

Giang noted that the Beijing-centered community is "all-encompassing" but lacks specifics, so Vietnamese participation is "more about form than substance."

"Vietnam joining the community does not mean that it falls into the Chinese orbit, nor that it embraces Beijing's version of world order," Giang stressed.

Poling noted that while the two sides signed dozens of vague agreements, Vietnam refused to sign about 10, including one on critical minerals for which Xi had personally lobbied.

"In any case, it has no diplomatic meaning in Vietnam – China remains a comprehensive strategic partner, just like the U.S., Korea and Japan," he wrote in the email.

Both experts pointed out that even the title "community of shared future" was downgraded at Vietnam's insistence from the more encompassing "community of common destiny" proposed by Beijing.

Economic interdependence

Zachary Abuza, a professor of national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, said in an email to VOA Vietnamese that economic interdependence is a key feature of the community. He noted that China and Vietnam "are quite interdependent economically."

"Northern Vietnam is part of the southern Chinese supply chain. Vietnam runs a chronic and large trade deficit with China due to the fact that so much of what Vietnam exports is based on Chinese-made parts," he wrote, adding that "Vietnam is clearly concerned" about what China's slowing economy and declining exports mean for it.

Abuza described Beijing's appetite for Vietnam's rare earth elements as "dangerous," given that China already has a near monopoly on rare earth reprocessing.

Nguyen Khac Giang said that Hanoi "apparently tried to stabilize trade-investment ties with China" and that Vietnam is "in huge need of capital to build infrastructures as well as transition to green energies."

Trust issue

The Vietnamese government's decision to join the community with China "will not ring well with the Vietnamese public," Nguyen Huu Vinh, a former security officer-turned-political activist, told VOA Vietnamese over the phone from Hanoi.

He said there is a "huge discrepancy between what Beijing said and what it has done."

"All that they said are just big but empty words," he said, warning that the new fishery hotline "would be of little use."

Poling said that Vietnam's participation in the community will do little to reduce Sino-Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea.

Abuza described the community as absolute nonsense when it comes to the South China Sea, given that "China's excessive maritime claims violate the sovereignty of Vietnam and the other claimants."

"Hanoi should be very leery of endorsing this or other of China's intentionally vaguely worded proposals for world order," he said. "Vietnam is far better served emphatically endorsing the rules-based order, governed by international law and accepted norms of behavior."

An Hai contributed to this report.