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China-Vietnam Relations

China's Embassy sits opposite Lenin Park, and the triangular shape of the park is symbolic of the geo-strategy of the 1970s and 1980s: A large Lenin statue at one end, the PRC Embassy at another, and the Citadel occupied by Vietnam's Ministry of Defense at the third. But this strategic triangle, such as it was, is now a thing of the past. While no one in Vietnam's defense and foreign policy establishment completely trusts China, there are no illusions about Vietnam's ability to play Russia -- or the United States for that matter -- against China. The wisest approach for Vietnam remains to maintain as cordial and stable a relationship with China as possible, while also cautiously cultivating a diverse range of bilateral friendships.

Hostility toward China remains a powerful, if latent, force in Vietnamese society, fed by historical animosities and simmering resentment over what is widely viewed as Chinese bullying on South China Sea territorial disputes. Yet despite a pervasive undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment, Vietnam's China policy remains grounded in pragmatism. Economics largely drives the agenda, but there have been diplomatic gains as well. The two sides regularly exchange high-level visitors and have made substantial progress in demarcating their land border. Still, there are constraints, and as efforts to prevent anti-China demonstrations suggest, the party recognizes that popular ill will -- though initially directed at China -- could easily turn in a less welcome direction. A strategic preoccupation with China continues to temper Vietnam's willingness to fully engage with the United States.

Vietnam professes that it is "friends to all," a slogan that sounds naive but reflects a fundamentally pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Vietnam's overriding strategic concern remains China. Hanoi is realistic about the power imbalance and is wary of antagonizing its neighbor. Hanoi is also under no illusions that it can somehow "balance" China with the United States, Russia, or Japan individually. Nor is a more confrontational approach toward China something the Party tolerates domestically: once unleashed, nationalistic sentiment, though initially directed at China, could easily turn toward the Party itself. Instead, Vietnam seeks to maintain as cordial and stable a relationship with China as possible, while also cautiously cultivating a diverse range of bilateral friendships and enmeshing these in a framework of multilateral engagement.

Many Vietnamese worry there are too many eggs in the Chinese basket. Vietnam has a trade deficit with China of $17.8 billion as of August 2014, according to the General Statistics Office. Should clashes erupt at sea, they almost certainly would cause ripples hitting stock markets and pocketbooks.

China-Vietnam Relations - Recent Developments

While Vietnam has not experienced war since its withdrawal from Cambodia, tensions have periodically flared between Vietnam and China, primarily over boundary issues. While Vietnam and China were able to agree to land borders in 1999, overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea continue to increase bilateral tensions. Vietnam and China each assert claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands, archipelagos in the potentially oil-rich area of the South China Sea. Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan also claim all or part of the Spratly Islands.

Over the years, conflicting claims have produced small-scale armed altercations in the area; in 1988, 70 Vietnamese sailors died in a confrontation with China in the Spratlys. China's assertion of "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands and the entire South China Sea has elicited concern from Vietnam and its Southeast Asia neighbors. Tensions escalated in the latter half of 2007 as, according to press reports, China pressured foreign oil companies to abandon their oil and gas exploration contracts with Vietnam in the South China Sea. Vietnamese students staged several anti-China demonstrations in response, prompting a warning from the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman that Hanoi's failure to quell the demonstrations was harming relations. China's efforts in the summer of 2009 to strictly enforce its unilateral fishing ban in disputed waters led to the detention for several weeks of more than two dozen Vietnamese fishermen.

In contrast, Vietnam has made significant progress with China in delineating its northern land border and the Gulf of Tonkin, pursuant to a Land Border Agreement signed in December 1999, and an Agreement on Borders in the Gulf of Tonkin signed in December 2000. The two sides completed demarcation of their land border in December 2008 and have reached understanding on maritime boundaries in the mouth of the Tonkin Gulf.

Vietnam, like China, places great emphasis on joint declarations, and the decision to characterize Hanoi's relationship with Beijing as a "Comprehensive Strategic Partnership" at the conclusion of CPV General Secretary Nong Duc Manh's June 2008 visit to Beijing marked a significant upgrading of ties. The Vietnam-China relationship is on a much better footing than it was even two-three years earlier. As evidence of this, both sides pointed to an acceleration of high-level government and Party meetings, including Manh's summit in Beijing, the 6-12 September 2008 visit to Vietnam of Guangdong Party Secretary and Politburo member Wang Yang, and the visit to Beijing by PM Dung, at the end of 2008. Specific deliverables included demarcating the land border and agreement to establish a hot line, as well as cooperation on "less sensitive" matters such as disaster relief, typhoon and tsunami forecasting, and search and rescue.

Vietnam and China generally enjoy close relations, but the conflict over sovereignty, territorial claims and maritime resources in the South China Sea is a persistent source of tension. While Vietnam cannot hope to match China in naval power, it can make any conflict over disputed claims a complex and risky proposition for China. Despite agreement on the final demarcation of their land border and progress settling the maritime boundary beyond the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam and China have made no evident progress in resolving the offshore sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea (or "East Sea" as the Vietnamese term it). The offshore dispute continues to entangle multiple multinational energy companies, including U.S.-based ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Plains Exploration & Production.

Improvements in Vietnam-China relations have been driven primarily by shared domestic challenges, rather than geo-strategy. Vietnam and China have comparable political systems and are trying to balance continued economic reform -- including efforts to restrain spending on state-run enterprises -- with the need to sustain the Party's authority. But the main impetus for better relations increasingly is economics, with increasing trade and investment.

Vietnam's relationship with China is a vexing issue domestically. The government's apprehensions were on clear display 14 September 2008, the fiftieth anniversary of then-PM Phan Van Dong's diplomatic note to China acknowledging China's claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands. In the days prior to the anniversary, a series of postings in Vietnam's roiling internet blog scene appeared urging students to stage a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy. In the event, as witnessed by poloffs, a heavy policy presence at the Embassy and nearby Lenin Park likely deterred any demonstration, as did a series of arrests and preventative detentions September 10-11.

An official welcoming ceremony was held June 19, 2013 for visiting President Truong Tan Sang and his entourage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. During talks afterwards, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China values the friendly cooperation with Vietnam. President Sang reiterated Vietnam’s unswerving policy of treasuring the neighborliness, and comprehensive cooperation with China, pledging to do his utmost to bring the Vietnam-China comprehensive strategic partnership to a new height.

China evacuated more than 3,000 nationals from Vietnam following deadly rioting in May 2014 triggered by rising tensions over rival maritime claims in the South China Sea. The evacuees include 16 nationals critically injured when Vietnamese protesters rampaged through foreign-owned factories on Tuesday and Wednesday. The 16 were among about 150 workers injured at a steel plant in Ha Tinh province in a protest against China's move to install an oil rig in Vietnamese territorial waters. Hanoi vowed to head off any further violence.

China's actions exposed a large rift among the senior echelons of the party on responding to Beijing's aggression. By June 2014 advocates of a more assertive foreign policy seemed to be carrying the day. They advocated a hardline and confrontational approach. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and Nguyen Sinh Hung, the Chairman of the National Assembly [who has been vociferous in his public calls for Vietnam to stand up to China]. Other members of this group included the pro-reformist Le Thanh Hai (Ho Chi Minh City's Party Chief), Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the deputy chairmen of the National Assembly, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and Thong Thi Phong.

The de-escalation camp was led by Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and included those who were was much less willing to provoke Beijing or do anything that would further escalate tensions. This camp included To Huy Ru'a, a member of the Party's Secretariat, Le Hong Anh (VCP Secretariat), Ngo Van Du (Chair Central Committee for Inspection), Dinh The Huyen (Propaganda and Education Commission), Pham Quang Nghi (Hanoi Party Chief), Nguyen Thien Nhan (Chairman of Vietnam Fatherland Front). The Minister for Public Security, Tran Dai Quang was probably fearful of mass discontent and continued protests should the conflict escalate.

Vietnam said 31 July 2014 that its foreign policy is aimed at protecting the country’s independence. The comment followed a letter from prominent members of the Communist Party to the country’s top leaders calling for political and economic reforms to end the country’s “reliance” on China. Some 60 prominent members of Vietnam’s Communist Party sent an open letter to the Central Committee - the party’s highest level - saying that Hanoi has paid a high price for conceding too much to China’s demands. The open letter from prominent members of the Communist Party urged the country to end its close relationship with China. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended Hanoi’s foreign policy following a question related to Speaking at a regular press briefing in the capital, spokesman Le Hai Binh said Vietnam’s current policy aims to “protect the independence, reliance and diversification” of international relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called 27 August 2014 for joint efforts between China and Vietnam to mend bilateral ties after recent tensions. Xi said during a meeting with a special envoy of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Central Committee in Beijing that China and Vietnam are close neighbors and both socialist countries. "A neighbor cannot be moved away and it is in the common interests of both sides to be friendly to each other," Xi said during the meeting with Le Hong Anh, a Politburo member and standing secretary of the Secretariat of the CPV Central Committee.

Le Hong Anh arrived in Beijing on for a two-day visit. Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, held talks with him and they agreed to avoid actions that might worsen their dispute on maritime issues. Under a three-point agreement reached between Liu Yunshan and Le Hong Anh, China and Vietnam will earnestly implement a basic guideline for the resolution of China-Vietnam maritime issues signed in October 2011.

Regarding the East Sea issue, Politburo member Le Hong Anh noted that due to the recent difficult circumstances and tense relations between the two countries, leaders of the two countries needed to directly instruct relevant ministries and agencies in the two countries to uphold negotiations in order to seek basic, long-term solutions that are acceptable for both sides, while actively studying “transition” solutions and enhancing expert group meetings on the Gulf of Tonkin.

China-Vietnam Relations - Early Developments

Vietnam-China relations deteriorated significantly after Hanoi instituted a ban in March 1978 on private trade, which had a particularly large impact on southern Vietnam's ethnic Chinese community. Following Vietnam's December 1978 invasion of Cambodia and the expulsion of a significant number of Hoa (ethnic Chinese) from Vietnam, China in February 1979 launched a 3-week incursion over Vietnam's northern border.

Vietnam did not begin to emerge from international isolation until it withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989. China reestablished full diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1991, and the two countries began joint efforts to demarcate their land and sea borders, expand trade and investment ties, and build political relations.

The deterioration of Sino-Vietnamese relations had been gradual, commencing perhaps most dramatically with Richard M. Nixon's 1972 visit to China (which Hanoi later called the beginning of China's betrayal of Vietnam), but in the mid-1970s the signs of an impending breakdown were barely discernible. Until 1977 the Vietnam-Cambodia dispute appeared to the outside world to be purely bilateral and China's strategic considerations seemed only distantly connected to the skirmishes taking place on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. The Chinese in the 1976-77 period were preoccupied with internal affairs, including the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the arrest of Mao's widow, and the return to power of Deng Xiaoping.

As the situation between Vietnam and Cambodia deteriorated, the signs of a potential Sino-Vietnamese rift became clearer the more Cambodia's strategic importance for both China and Vietnam. appeared at risk. Aside from risking the return of the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam, viewed a disengagement from Cambodia as paramount to inviting China to create a two-front threat by establishing a foothold on a second Vietnamese frontier. In China's view, Vietnam's sustained presence in Cambodia not only precluded such an accomplishment, but conferred territory, once administered by an acknowledged Chinese ally, to the authority of an historic Asian adversary that was closely allied with a contemporary superpower rival, the Soviet Union.

Vietnam's and China's shared modern experiences, namely their common exploitation by colonial powers and adaptations to communist ideology, did little to alter Vietnam's historical view of China, which was colored by lengthy periods of Chinese conquest and domination. During the Second Indochina War, China acted as North Vietnam's closest ally, but, according to later Vietnamese statements, the Chinese tried to dominate the relationship from the beginning. Vietnam's desperate need for Chinese assistance forced it to maintain good relations with Beijing for the duration of the war, despite Vietnamese suspicions that China's ultimate purpose was to weaken Vietnam.

After the end of the Second Indochina War, underlying tensions between the two countries surfaced, and in 1978 a number of issues converged to bring the relationship to the breaking point. In addition to the growing dispute in Cambodia, these issues included territorial disagreements and Vietnam's treatment of its own largest minority group, the Hoa or ethnic Chinese, who numbered nearly 2 million.

The territorial dispute involved primarily delineation of territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin and sovereignty over two archipelagos in the South China Sea, the Paracel and the Spratly Islands (the Xisha and the Nansha in Chinese; the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa in Vietnamese). A border dispute on land (over fewer than sixty square kilometers) was responsible for the relatively steady occurrence of low-level border clashes involving crossborder violations and the exchange of small-arms fire. In 1958 the two governments decided to defer settling their border differences until after victory had been achieved in the South.

Disagreement over territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin stemmed from agreements reached between China and France in 1887, stipulating a territorial limit of no more three nautical miles. These agreements had been adequate until 1973, when Hanoi announced to Beijing its intention to negotiate contracts with foreign firms for the exploration of oil in the Gulf of Tonkin. The disputed islands in the South China Sea assumed importance only after it was disclosed that they were near the potential sites of substantial offshore oil deposits. In January 1974, Chinese military units seized islands in the Paracels occupied by South Vietnamese armed forces, and Beijing claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys. Following their conquest of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975, units of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) nevertheless moved to occupy the Spratly Islands previously held by the Saigon regime.

Vietnam's treatment of the Hoa became an issue in 1978, when Hanoi instituted a crackdown on the Chinese community because of its pervasive role in domestic commerce in the South and its alleged subversive activities in the North. The government action forced an unprecedented exodus of thousands of Hoa across the border into China, prompting Beijing to accuse Vietnam of persecuting its Chinese community and of breaking a 1955 agreement that called for the gradual and voluntary integration of the Hoa into Vietnamese society. The situation was aggravated when Vietnam denied landing privileges to three Chinese ships dispatched to evacuate Hoa seeking voluntary repatriation to China. Beijing threatened Hanoi with unspecified retaliation, and Chinese activities on the Sino-Vietnamese border escalated.

The deterioration in bilateral relations became evident when China reduced in May 1978 and then cancelled on July 3 its remaining aid projects in Vietnam. The officical announcement followed by only a few days Hanoi's admission on June 29 to the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Assistance ( Comecon). A few months later, in November 1978, a new era in Soviet-Vietnamese relations began with the signing of a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that called for mutual assistance and consultation in the event of a security threat to either country. The document facilitated Soviet use of Vietnamese airports and port facilities, particularly the former United States military complex at Cam Ranh Bay. In return, it assured Vietnam of economic and military aid for the anticipated invasion of Cambodia and established the Soviet Union as a deterrent to possible Chinese intervention in Cambodia.

Vietnam's decision to align with the Soviets together with its invasion of Cámbodia and mistreatment of the Hoa, provoked Beijing to "teach Hanoi a lesson." A "self-defense counterattack," mounted by China along the Sino-Vietnamese border on February 17, 1979, ended less than a month later, on March 5, when Chinese leaders announced that their objectives had been met and proceeded to withdraw their forces. Despite the Chinese boast of having shattered the myth of Vietnam's invincibility, the invasion effected little more than the diversion of some Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. The bulk of the resistance reportedly was offered by local Vietnamese border units and regional forces. Outnumbered, they performed well, exposing significant weaknesses in Chinese tactics, strategy, logistics, equipment, and communications. In the final analysis, the results were far from conclusive. Peace negotiations were initiated following the disengagement of forces, but broke down several times before being discontinued in December 1979.

The Cambodian crisis, too, remained stalemated, and Vietnamese dependence upon the Soviet Union continued. In 1987 tensions along the Sino-Vietnamese border erupted in sporadic fighting. China believed that the Cambodian conflict would serve Chinese interests by draining the Vietnamese economically and weakening Hanoi. China's sustained pressure on Vietnam's northern border would also tax Vietnam militarily, while satisfying ASEAN's requests for Chinese assistance in the conflict and providing Chinese armed forces with invaluable combat experience. Consequently, Vietnam's dry-season campaigns to eliminate CGDK resistance base camps along the Thai-Cambodian border were generally matched by corresponding Chinese acts along the SinoVietnamese border. China issued vague threats to Vietnam of a "second lesson" in the mid-1980s but had not acted on these threats.

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Page last modified: 08-01-2021 13:58:33 ZULU