By: Khanh Vu Duc

Relations between China and Vietnam appear to have improved following Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Vietnam on Oct.13.

Premier Li and his Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, announced new trade and diplomatic initiatives designed to bolster political ties between the two neighboring countries, with two-way trade between countries aimed for US$60 billion by 2015.

All of this is part of China’s charm offensive, which began in Indonesia and Malaysia last month and carried through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and East Asia summits last week with official visits to Brunei and Thailand, designed to present a softer and more involved, if not agreeable, China.

Lest Li’s visit be seen as a turning point in Vietnam–China relations, however, it remains to be seen whether this positive note will surmount the differences between both countries. Vietnamese point out that China has invaded Vietnam at least 25 times, the latest major incursion the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979. Last year China threatened military action over the resource-rich Spratly chain of islands. In 2011 Vietnam staged a live-fire exercise in the area, earning Beijing’s displeasure. Last December, Vietnam accused Chinese patrol boats of cutting submarine cables of Vietnamese oil exploration vessels.

Hedging bets

Although eager to ride China’s coattails, Vietnam won’t put all of its eggs in the proverbial basket. To lean too heavily towards China could be seen as a passive capitulation of sorts by the Hanoi government to Beijing by Vietnam’s own citizens, whose opinions of their northern neighbors are not always positive.

China is an economic opportunity for Vietnam, an opportunity to revitalize its struggling economy, but it is not a silver bullet. As Vietnam has done in the past, it will continue to play China off the United States, using one to balance against the other.

For observers in Washington, the visit by the Chinese premier should not be seen as a symbol of the declining influence of America in Hanoi, but rather another chapter in the long-running drama between the two neighboring countries. After all, there remains the ongoing South China Sea dispute in which Vietnam and China share overlapping claims.

As such, Vietnam is no more an ally of China than it is of the US. The relationship between Vietnam and both countries can best be described as close but noncommittal. If nothing else than to preserve the Communist Party of Vietnam, Hanoi will not jeopardize its existence by throwing its weight behind one side or the other, but would much prefer to keep its options open.

China understands this and has sought to play the long game by gradually winning influence in Hanoi through political and trade ties. Unfortunately for the US, Washington is either slow or to play the same game or unaware of the options.

Vietnam may not factor greatly into US foreign policy – indeed, although Vietnam would prove to be a good addition to US strategic interests in Asia-Pacific, Washington, having already many partners in the area and wouldn’t lose any sleep if Hanoi decides otherwise. As a consequence, US efforts to push Vietnam to ameliorate its human rights situation have been relatively weak.

Perhaps fearing that Vietnam will rush into the waiting arms of China if the US pushes too hard, Washington has seemingly always stopped short of forceful measures. Although the US has and continues to withhold the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, relations between the two countries remain business as usual. There is little to be gained by writing a country off for having different beliefs or values, but for the US to criticize Vietnam for its ever worsening human rights record while carrying on as if nothing is wrong is shortsighted.

Due to the potential complications of being seen as a puppet of China in the eyes of the people of Vietnam, Hanoi is unlikely to ever openly declare an allegiance to their neighbor. Given this, the US has room to maneuver and pressure Vietnam to enact human rights reform, which will undoubtedly earn the support of the ordinary Vietnamese citizen. Whether Washington is willing to invest the time and energy to effect such change is another question entirely.

However, by playing China and the US, Vietnam has placed itself in a vulnerable position in which both countries could simply shut Vietnam out if they decide the Southeast Asian country is not worth the attention.

For Vietnam, the assumption in Hanoi is that nothing has changed. Relations with China will continue to fluctuate but not devolve into outright hostility, while the US will continue to list Vietnam’s apparent failures but do nothing of substance to put Vietnam on notice. Vietnam will continue to hedge its bets, asking much while giving little.

From China’s side, in order to allay Vietnam’s justifiable suspicions, Beijing should push harder to source manufactured goods from Vietnam and not just raid natural resources such as timber. Beijing also needs to give Hanoi something such as joint management and exploitation of fisheries in contested waters and to stop challenging Vietnam’s exploration on its own continental shelf for oil and gas.

Given the long history of bad blood between the two countries, Vietnam’s citizens are not going to wait forever for these Chinese benefits to begin to flow. They rioted in the streets last year over Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, to the point where they had to be quelled by the police. They could probably be induced to do it again.

(Khanh Vu Duc teaches at the University of Ottawa’s Civil Law Section; and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)