By Tuong Vu
Relations between China and Vietnam have taken a dive since June, after Gen. Fan Changlong of China cut short his visit to Hanoi and canceled a cross-border gathering for the two militaries aimed to build mutual trust.
The cause of the dispute was an oil-drilling contract in the South China Sea that Hanoi had signed with the Spanish firm Repsol. This had happened before, but this time Beijing threatened to undertake military measures if Hanoi did not cease and desist. Within a week Vietnam had canceled the contract and agreed to pay Repsol millions of dollars in compensation.
China’s direct military threat to Vietnam indicates an escalation of tension in the South China Sea, and Hanoi’s quick kowtow to Beijing has led many to blame President Donald Trump’s inward-oriented foreign policy.
This is unfair. A week later Defense Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch of Vietnam arrived in Washington to meet with his counterpart, Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Lịch, political commissar of the People’s Army of Vietnam, was known as a hard-line ideologue in Vietnamese politics. When he arrived in the US capital, however, he announced that, for the first time in bilateral history, Vietnam had accepted a proposal for a port visit by a US aircraft carrier.
The idea for such a visit had been floated many times. Most recently, as President-elect Trump made the suggestion, but it took Chinese military pressure for Vietnam’s top brass to warm to the idea. Lịch’s visit, in fact, fits a long-standing pattern of Vietnamese policy toward China and the United States. Hanoi looks to Washington for assistance only when China threatens—but, in its heart, Vietnam values its relationship with Beijing more.
Like Vietnam, China is a socialist country. The two communist parties’ relationship goes back to the 1920s, when a young Ho Chi Minh worked alongside fellow revolutionary Zhou Enlai to mobilize laborers in southern China. Soon after Mao Zedong and Zhou took power in China, they supported the Vietnamese revolution by sending arms and advisers, helping Ho’s army win a decisive battle against the French in 1954.
During the Vietnam War, Beijing was Hanoi’s big brother, as well as its most generous financier. Beijing sent Hanoi billions of dollars, as well as food and military aid. For much of the 1960s, more than 100,000 Chinese troops were stationed permanently in North Vietnam.
Relations turned dramatically as the war ended, however. Hanoi viewed Mao’s invitation for President Richard Nixon to visit Beijing in 1972 as treachery. With both Beijing and Moscow courting Washington’s attention, and with Vietnam’s victory over the Americans in 1975, Vietnamese leaders began to imagine themselves as vanguards of world revolution. Their ambition to dominate Indochina riled Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who sent half a million troops across the border in 1979 to teach the “ungrateful” Vietnamese a lesson.
The border war between the communist brothers lasted until the late 1980s. As the Soviet bloc collapsed and the US-led camp emerged triumphant, Hanoi felt threatened and quickly turned to Beijing, apologizing for the war and proposing a new anti-imperialist alliance. Although Beijing turned down the proposal, bilateral relations were restored in 1991.
To demonstratethat they had learned their lesson, Hanoi’s leaders changed their constitution to remove anti-China passages. While Vietnam celebrated the wars against France and the United States every year, the 1979 war with China was erased from public memory. State-controlled media were prohibited from publishing negative news about China, and editors who violated the ban were punished.
Vietnam restored relations with the US in 1995 and concluded a bilateral agreement in 2001. As market reforms gathered steam, Vietnam achieved remarkable success with its exports. The US became the leading market for Vietnamese exports, allowing the country to earn billions of dollars in trade surplus.
Despite the value of the American market for Vietnam, however, the US remained in the “not so close” category for Hanoi leaders. Washington’s criticism of Vietnam’s violations of human rights infuriated them, and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq prompted deep anxiety. As recently as 2005, the PAVN still considered the United States a strategic enemy.
Across the border, bilateral relations between China and Vietnam thrived: Top leaders paid annual visits, as did representatives from the military, the Public Security Ministry, the Propaganda Department and other government organs. By 2011 China had overtaken the United States as Vietnam’s top trade partner, and by 2014 Vietnam’s trade with China was nearly twice its trade with the US
Problems began in 2005, however, when China began aggressively enforcing its sovereignty claims over much of the South China Sea, dashing Vietnamese leaders’ hope that the camaraderie between the two parties would rise above narrow national interests. While pursuing several strategies in response to China’s rising threat, Hanoi assigned greater weight to talks between the two fraternal parties than to multilateral or legal approaches.
When China towed a giant oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014, even as Hanoi sent Coast Guard ships to surround the Chinese naval force defending the rig, party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng tried to call President Xi Jinping of China a dozen times, hoping in vain that Xi would answer. On the streets Vietnamese people peacefully protesting China were beaten by security forces. Trọng later visited Washington, a first for a general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
After the oil-rig confrontation, criticisms of China appeared in the Vietnamese press. Nevertheless, there is no sign that Hanoi has fundamentally changed its strategy of making timid overtures to the United States only when Beijing acts up. Given the domination of Marxist-Leninist loyalists in the top leadership elected at the 12th Party Congress in 2016, change is unlikely.
Lịch’s welcome of a US aircraft carrier’s visit sends China a signal of displeasure, but isn’t a drastic policy u-turn. The Repsol affair left Hanoi with a bruised eye, and the country wants Beijing to know that it is unhappy. Still, like an abused spouse who calls the police after a beating but then doesn’t end the relationship, Hanoi will follow its heart and won’t break away from Beijing anytime soon.
Tuong Vu, author of Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2016), is the director of Asian Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Oregon.
New York Times News Service