Is Vietnam tilting toward China?

First the Philippines, then Malaysia, now Vietnam… As predicted, Asia will tilt away from the United States and come under the umbrella protectorate of China, and form a new Asian bloc.

Who wants to go to war with China when you have an unstable United States under Barack Obama who may or may not have your back? Who wants to go to war with China with a bi-polar United States that changes its position with every new President? Who wants to go to war with China when the United States is further decimating its own already-troubled military?

These are the perspectives these Asian nations have. If you can’t beat them (China), join them.

 

When he traveled to China for a state visit in October 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was grandly received by Beijing.

Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), was treated much in the same manner during his official trip to China last week.

Yet, while Mr Trong’s visit was aimed at developing stronger ties with China, it does not mean that the communist leadership in Hanoi is pursuing a Duterte-like pivot to Beijing.

Closer ties with Beijing

Trong’s four-day trip, which started on January 12, was his first to China since being re-elected as the CPV’s leader at its 12th National Congress in January 2016 and his first foreign tour in 2017.

He went to Beijing with a high-ranking delegation that included four politburo members in charge of four important departments in Vietnam’s one-party regime – namely central propaganda, foreign affairs, national defense and public security.

During the visit, Hanoi and Beijing reached a wide range of agreements aimed at strengthening cooperation between the two ruling parties and the two communist neighbors in various fields and at many levels.

Trong’s outing was followed by recent notable trips to the Asian juggernaut by other Vietnamese top officials – including Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Dinh The Huynh, the CPV’s Permanent Secretary, in September and October 2016, respectively. Mr Huynh, an influential politburo member, is tipped to succeed Trong if the 72-year old leader chooses to step down in the near future.

All these journeys suggest Hanoi is attaching a greater importance to its cooperation with Beijing and adopting a more friendly posture toward the latter than about six or seven months ago. A combination of factor may contribute to this change.

One of these is the fact that China is Vietnam’s closest neighbor, sharing not only land and sea borders but also many political and economic similarities with the former. The world’s most populous country is also Vietnam’s biggest trading partner. Given all of these, coupled with Vietnam’s power asymmetry vis-à-vis its giant neighbor, for the country’s stability – and perhaps for the CPV’s survival – steadying its ties with Beijing is always a priority for Hanoi.

Chinese leaders’ current charm diplomacy is also influencing Hanoi’s posture. Mr Trong was the first foreign leader China received in 2017. He was given a red-carpet welcome upon his arrival at the Beijing International Airport and an official welcoming ceremony with full honors at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 12. Five of the seven members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, held talks with him.

Mr Phuc was given a similar treatment when he toured China last September.

The warm reception Chinese leaders extended to their Vietnamese “comrades and brothers” indicates that Beijing is also highly valuing Hanoi and its relations with the latter. This, in return, is increasing Vietnam’s trust – or at least, decreasing its mistrust – in Beijing and encouraging it to develop tighter ties with China.

It seems tensions and suspicion caused by China’s actions in recent years, notably its placement of its huge oil rig, HS-981, in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014, have now eased.

Overt overtures made toward Beijing by several regional countries, particularly Malaysia and the Philippines, are another defining factor.

Last November, Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak made a six-day trip to China. During that visit, which was intended to elevate their relationship to “greater heights”, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing signed many new agreements, including Malaysia’s first major defense deal with China.

Two weeks before that, President Rodrigo Duterte also made a landmark trip to Beijing, where he eventually and solemnly announced his “separation from the US” and his “dependence” on China, after months of publicly denouncing Washington and praising Beijing.

Malaysia’s turn toward Beijing and especially the Philippines’ dramatic tilt away from its long-standing and most important ally to China’s orbit somehow influenced a rethink in Hanoi.

But not a Duterte-like shift

Yet, while becoming more receptive to Beijing, Hanoi is not bandwagoning with the latter; and this is because of many reasons.

One of these concerns Vietnam’s economic imbalance with China. Though it has dropped recently, Vietnam’s trade deficit with the world’s second biggest economy remains enormous. According to its General Statistics Office (GSO), in 2016, Vietnam exported (US)$21.8 billion in goods to the world’s largest trading country and imported $49.8 billion from it. This means it had a trade deficit of $28 billion with China last year.

Full article: Is Vietnam tilting toward China? (Asia Times)

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