Skip to main content



Despite courting US, Vietnam won’t break up with China

Relations between China and Vietnam have taken a dive since June, after Chinese General Fan Changlong cut short his visit to Hanoi and cancelled a cross-border gathering for the two militaries aimed at building mutual trust.

Despite courting US, Vietnam won’t break up with China

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis hosting a guard of honour for Vietnamese Defence Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich at the Pentagon earlier this month. Gen Lich announced during the visit that, for the first time in bilateral history, Vietnam had accepted a proposal for a port visit by a US aircraft carrier. Photo: Reuters

Relations between China and Vietnam have taken a dive since June, after Chinese General Fan Changlong cut short his visit to Hanoi and cancelled a cross-border gathering for the two militaries aimed at building mutual trust.

The cause of the row was an oil-drilling contract in the South China Sea that Hanoi had signed with the Spanish firm Repsol. Unlike previous occasions, this time Beijing threatened to undertake military measures if Hanoi did not cease and desist. Within a week, Vietnam indeed cancelled the contract and agreed to pay millions of dollars to Repsol as compensation.

China’s direct military threat to Vietnam indicates an escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, and Hanoi’s quick kowtow to Beijing has led many to blame Mr Trump’s inward-oriented foreign policy. “The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea” was the title of British journalist Bill Hayton’s article for Foreign Policy magazine.

This is unfair. A week later, Vietnam’s Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich arrived in Washington DC, to meet his counterpart, United States Secretary of Defence James Mattis. Gen Lich, the political commissar of the People’s Army of Vietnam — PAVN — was known as a hardline ideologue in Vietnamese politics.

Yet Gen Lich appeared in the American capital with a rare smile and 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 — it is conceivable that a visit could have been made when President Bill Clinton made the ice-breaking trip to Vietnam in 2000. Most recently, Mr Trump as president-elect also made the suggestion, but it took Chinese military pressure for the PAVN’s top brass to warm to the idea.

Gen Lich’s visit, in fact, fits a long-standing pattern of Vietnamese policy towards China and the US. Hanoi looks to Washington for assistance only when China threatens, but in its heart, the country values Beijing’s comradeship more.

Like Vietnam, China is a socialist country. The relationship between the two communist parties goes back to the 1920s, when a young Ho Chi Minh worked alongside fellow revolutionary Zhou Enlai to mobilise peasants in southern China. Few political parties can boast of such a century-long international comradeship.

Soon after Mao Zedong and Zhou took power in China, they supported the Vietnamese revolution by sending arms and advisors, helping Ho’s army win a decisive battle over the French at Dien Bien Phu 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 in cash, food and military aid even while millions of Chinese died of starvation.

For much of the 1960s, more than 100,000 Chinese troops were stationed permanently in North Vietnam while PAVN soldiers were sent to fight in the south.

Relations turned dramatically as the war ended. Hanoi viewed Mao’s invitation for US President Richard Nixon to visit Beijing in 1972 as a despicably traitorous act. With both Beijing and Moscow courting Washington’s attention and with their victory over the Americans in 1975, Vietnamese leaders began to imagine themselves as vanguards of world revolution.

Their ambition to dominate Indochina riled 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, apologising for the war and proposing a new anti-imperialist alliance.

Although Beijing turned down the proposal, bilateral relations were restored in 1991.

To demonstrate that a lesson had been learnt, Hanoi’s leaders changed the Constitution to remove anti-China passages. While Vietnam grandly celebrated the wars against France and the US every year, the 1979 war with China was erased from public memory. State-controlled media were prohibited from publishing negative news about Chinese society, economy or politics, and editors who violated the ban were swiftly punished.

To attract much-needed foreign aid and investment once the Soviet bloc was no more, Hanoi sought to expand foreign relations, declaring that Vietnam welcomed friendship with all countries. However, an internal memo by the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party showed that the party distinguished between “close and not so close friends”, depending on their ideology.

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 many exports, including seafood, rice and coffee. 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, the US remained in the “not so close” category in the eyes of Hanoi leaders. Washington’s frequent criticism of Vietnam’s violations of human rights infuriated them, and US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq prompted deep anxieties. As recently as 2005, PAVN still considered the US a strategic enemy.

Across the border, bilateral relations between China and Vietnam thrived: Top leaders paid regular annual visits, as did representatives from the military, the Public Security Ministry, the Propaganda Department, the Communist Youth League and various other government organs.

No wonder that by 2011, China had overtaken the US as Vietnam’s top trade partner. By 2014, its trade with China was nearly twice that with the US. Ironically, Vietnam had a trade deficit with China as large as the trade surplus it enjoyed with the US.

Problems began by 2005, when China began to aggressively enforce its sovereignty claims over much of the South China Sea, dashing Vietnamese leaders’ cherished hope that the comradely spirit between the two parties would soar above narrow national interests.

While pursuing several strategies in response to China’s rising threat, Hanoi consistently 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 Nguyen Phu Trong tried to call Chinese President Xi Jinping a dozen times, hoping in vain that Mr Xi would pick up the phone. On the streets, Vietnamese peacefully protesting against China were beaten, in some cases savagely, by security forces. Mr Trong later visited Washington, the first for a general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

After the oil rig confrontation, criticism of China appeared in the Vietnamese press. Nevertheless, no sign exists that Hanoi has fundamentally changed its strategy in which timid overtures to the US are made only when Beijing acts up.

Given the domination of Marxist-Leninist loyalists in the top leadership elected at the 12th Party Congress in 2016, such change is less likely.

Gen Lich’s welcome of a US aircraft carrier’s visit sends a signal of displeasure more than any drastic U-turn in Vietnamese policy regarding China. 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 refuses to end the relationship, Hanoi will follow its heart and is not about to break away from Beijing soon. YALE GLOBAL


Tuong Vu is director of Asian Studies and professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. His most recent book is Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology.

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.