A Vietnamese pupil holds Vietnamese and Chinese national flags prior to the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping for a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi on November 12, 2017. (HOANG DINH Nam / POOL / AFP)

New Tensions in Vietnam – China Relations?

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While Vietnam – China relations have improved significantly with top-level visits and strengthened economic ties, it has also intensified relations with the US and Japan. These developments create new tensions for bilateral relations between Vietnam and China and destabilize the region.

Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Fan Changlong paid an official visit to Vietnam from 18 to 19 June 2017. He also planned to join Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich to preside over border exchange activities between the two militaries to be held in the provinces of Lai Chau and Yunnan from 20 to 22 June. However, General Fan cut short his visit and abruptly left Vietnam on the evening of 18 June without announcing the reasons.

Since the 2014 oil rig crisis, Vietnam – China relations have improved significantly. There have been exchanges of top level visits and economic ties have been strengthened. Vietnam is also strongly supporting the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, at the same time, Vietnam has intensified relations with China’s strategic rivals, the US and Japan. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first ASEAN leader to visit the US under the Trump administration in late May 2017. Shortly afterwards, he paid a high-profile visit to Japan, during which deals worth more than US$22 billion were sealed.

Military cooperation initiatives between Vietnam and the two powers were highlighted in joint statements of both visits, which also stressed common positions of the three countries over the South China Sea. Washington and Tokyo have also provided Hanoi with Coast Guard vessels and patrol boats to help enhance Vietnam’s maritime capacity.

Although no explanation has been offered for General Fan’s sudden departure from Vietnam, developments in Vietnam’s relations with the US and Japan may have played a role.

These developments have raised some eyebrows in Beijing. On 18 June 2017, the Global Times ran an op-ed condemning these diplomatic manoeuvres of Vietnam. It asserts that “Vietnam’s ambition” may “stir confrontation” and destabilize the region, and that “Vietnam’s frequent talks with the US and Japan about the South China Sea should not be viewed as benign”.
Although no explanation has been offered for General Fan’s sudden departure from Vietnam, developments in Vietnam’s relations with the US and Japan may have played a role.
These developments do not bode well for bilateral relations and new tensions may be expected in the coming months.