China Seeks Improved Ties with Vietnam, Fears US Alignment

In order to preserve the status quo, Vietnam needs to forge close ties with Washington, especially with regard to maritime defense and joint patrolling of the South China Sea.

china-vietnamDuring the summer of 2014, Sino-Vietnamese relations teetered on utter collapse as Hanoi reacted strongly to the placement of a Chinese oil rig and accompanying naval escort in waters claimed by Vietnam.

Tensions escalated as naval and civilian vessels from both countries repeatedly sought to hamper each other, sparking fears over a possible maritime skirmish. Following anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam and subsequent withdrawal of the Chinese oil rig, relations between Hanoi and Beijing have remained cool. In recent weeks there has been an increased emphasis, primarily by the Chinese government, to improve its relations with Vietnam. China wants to prevent undue conflict in the the South China Sea over the myriad islands, reefs and outcroppings which are claimed by various countries.

An important element in increasing relations is the recent agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding, which seeks to establish direct technical communication lines (hot lines) between both countries’ defense ministries. This is important because during the 2014 summer oil rig crisis, Vietnam sought to establish a hotline to manage the situation, yet was unsuccessful.

In light of events this summer, both sides have acknowledged that a miscalculation or accident in the South China Sea could quickly get out of hand. Moreover, in contrast to previous statements by Vietnam, Hanoi has recently downplayed existing territorial disputes, likening the war of words to a family spat, and emphasizing the recent improvement in bilateral relations.

It is important to note that Vietnam still has serious reservations about Chinese actions in the South China Sea, specifically the Paracel and Spratly Islands which both countries claim. While Beijing appears to be making an effort to repair relations in the wake of the oil rig crisis, the government continues to pursue an extensive construction program in the region. Specifically China is utilizing dredging vessels to reclaim land in effort to build outposts, fuel depots and even sophisticated air bases.

In response Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang stated that China’s move to build a military airstrip in the Spratly’s was “illegal and void without Vietnam’s permission.” Furthermore, this month saw the completion of the Paracel’s largest airport by China. In addition to this newly constructed outpost, Beijing has seven other construction projects in the region, five of which have been initiated by the new Xi government.

China’s recent emphasis on neighborliness is interesting because it comes on the heals of greater ties between Vietnam and the United States, as well as other regional powers such as India and Japan, both of which have stepped up their defense relations with Hanoi. Beijing has sought to dissuade Vietnam from looking afar for partners (read US), with China’s Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Fan Changlong stating that “It’s impossible for neighbouring countries to move…It is in the interest of both China and Vietnam to get along with each other and to handle differences appropriately.” The key factor which seems to have spurred China’s new charm offensive is the partial lifting of the United State’s forty year arms embargo on Vietnam, as well as other American efforts to create an “implicit military partnership.”

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For decades the Vietnamese government has followed a policy known as the “Three Nos” (no military alliances, no foreign bases in Vietnam, and no reliance on others when fighting other countries) with respect to defence planning. In recent years this doctrine has been undermined as the rise of China has seen that country pull far ahead in terms of defence spending, procurement and technological sophistication. Hanoi is now seriously reconsidering the “Three Nos” because recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea can only be checked by American naval power. In order to preserve the status quo, Vietnam needs to forge close ties with Washington, especially with regard to maritime defense and joint patrolling of the South China Sea.

Vietnam remains a one party state, a fact which has caused pause in Washington when reconsidering bilateral military ties, yet a friendly Vietnam, along the lines of Thailand or the Philippines, is increasingly a strategic priority.

The irony is palpable, as Vietnam is increasingly drawn to Washington, its former enemy, to counter China, Hanoi’s former Vietnam War supporter. Despite the legacy of Vietnam War era cooperation, Vietnam has historically viewed China as a colonial power, having fought a series of wars throughout ancient history against successive Chinese dynasties. Vietnam’s last clash with China was the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 following Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The three week war resulted in almost 100,000 causalities. Both great powers currying for favor in Vietnam have a bloody legacy in the country, and this makes considerations of alignment more complicated for the Vietnamese government.

Jeremy Luedi has a Bachelor’s consisting of an Honors Specialization in Political Science, major in History, minor in Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction from The University of Western Ontario. Born and raised in Switzerland, Jeremy is fluent in English and German, and has Swiss and Canadian citizenship.