China's Xi to visit Vietnam, repairing ties after rig row

Chinese President Xi Jinping will receive a warm welcome when he arrives in Hanoi on Friday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will receive a warm welcome when he arrives in Hanoi on Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS

HANOI (REUTERS) - Although Chinese President Xi Jinping won't get a gilded carriage or a beer in the prime minister's local pub on his Vietnam visit, a warm welcome awaits as both sides seek to repair ties after a fierce row last year.

Xi will receive the red-carpet treatment - a big banquet and a chance to address the National Assembly - when he arrives in Hanoi on Friday (Nov 6). But it will be short of the feting he received in Britain last month where he rode with Queen Elizabeth in her carriage and shared a pint with Prime Minister David Cameron.

Xi's visit to Vietnam has also been overshadowed by the announcement that he will meet his counterpart from Taiwan in Singapore on Saturday, the first meeting of leaders from the two rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.

Nevertheless, geopolitical stakes are high for China as Vietnam's relationship with the United States warms rapidly, owing to Washington's opportunistic courting in the wake of the communist neighbours' bitter dispute over Beijing's provocative parking of an oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters.

Anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam after Hanoi accused Chinese vessels of deliberately ramming its ships in the disputed waters. Dozens of navy and coastguard vessels from both countries were in the area at the time.

With mistrust still lingering, experts say Xi's visit is timely, two months out from Vietnam's five-yearly leadership shakeup, offering him a chance to heal wounds and remind its party kingmakers that Beijing has plenty to offer.

"Xi arrives in the middle of this ongoing (leadership) debate," said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"He may well want to try to tip the balance away from leaders who are strongly opposed to close ties with Beijing and most open to pursuing closer relations with Washington." Much has changed since their bitter South China Sea row 18 months ago.

Vietnam's ties beyond China are diversifying quickly, helped by a series of new trade deals, including with the European Union and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, providing favourable access to economies worth US$46 trillion (S$64 trillion) combined.

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South Korea is increasing investment through firms like Samsung and Japan and the United States have provided Vietnam's coastguard with vessels and training. Russia has delivered more submarines and is allowing Vietnam to use its designs to build Tarantul-class missile boats.

Such engagement, analysts say, has strengthened the hand of Vietnam in boosting its economy and its military deterrent as Beijing becomes more assertive with its maritime expansionism.

Xi's visit has met some opposition, including an online petition from Vietnamese nationalists and a small protest in Hanoi on Tuesday, which authorities normally hyper-sensitive to anti-China dissent made no attempt to thwart. Some experts say such tolerance reflects mixed views towards Beijing among Vietnam's political elite.

But with the world's second-biggest economy on its doorstep sharing US$60 billion in annual trade, Vietnam is showing no signs of letting a crucial economic relationship sour. Xi's visit, according to Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer, is in part "designed to re-take the initiative" through economic cooperation.

But the dynamic has been altered. Behind the anticipated smiles and warm handshakes, much rides on Xi's visit amid competition with Washington and uncertainty over what kind of leader will emerge from Vietnam's party congress.

"We'll see more of an unmitigated charm offensive than what's going on behind closed doors," Jonathan London, a professor at Hong Kong's City University, said of Xi's visit. "The general view is there's an emerging crop of prospective leaders of the variety that sees international integration as an opportunity more than a threat, and has a more circumspect view of Beijing. "Vietnam has no choice but to craft effective China policies."