NEWS ANALYSIS

Vietnam and China work towards warmer ties

Vietnamese President's visit seen as a means to improve 'strategic trust'

A 21-GUN salute, a guard of honour and even a group of cheery children waving flags - China clearly spared no efforts in welcoming Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang for his three-day state visit.

Beijing's welcome ceremony, and Hanoi's decision to send its President - the first Vietnamese leader to visit China since President Xi Jinping took office in March - reflect a mutual desire to improve the close, but complex and often-strained ties between the communist allies and one-time war foes, say observers.

"The pomp and ceremony reveals Xi's personal endorsement for warmer ties," said Singapore-based analyst Euan Graham.

He added that Mr Sang's visit - starting Wednesday - also reflects a high-level effort by both sides to "isolate the points of friction" from their relationship.

These include their chequered history - the two sides went to war in 1979 when they fell out - that still fuels bitterness among Vietnamese towards the Chinese.

More crucially, their territorial disputes in the South China Sea have also affected bilateral ties.

Hanoi is worried over Beijing's military assertiveness in the resource-rich sea, which includes the Paracel and Spratly island groups both sides lay claim to.

Incidents involving Chinese patrol ships firing at Vietnamese fishermen, most recently last month, have sparked anti-Beijing street protests in Vietnam.

In response, Vietnam has triggered worries in China by walking closer with countries like Japan and the United States - not the best of friends with the Chinese.

Japan, bickering with China over islands in East China Sea, is reportedly in discussions with Vietnam about beefing up the latter's maritime security.

Said regional security expert Carl Thayer: "Beijing is suspicious that Vietnam is encouraging the US to balance China. Vietnam is ever suspicious about Chinese influence in Vietnam and Chinese actions that challenge Vietnam's claims in the South China Sea."

Both sides are thus using Mr Sang's visit to improve the low level of "strategic trust", said Jinan University analyst Zhang Mingliang, a Sino-Asean expert.

But each is doing so for largely different reasons, said analysts.

Vietnam is seeking economic gains from China - the world's No. 2 economy - to boost its beleaguered economy. It is aiming to grow 5.5 per cent this year, its third consecutive year of sub-6 per cent growth since 1988.

China, in turn, is aiming largely for political benefits, said Dr Xu Liping, a South-east Asian expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "China wants to show the Sino-Vietnamese way of resolving the South China Sea disputes is a model for others too."

Mr Xi urged both sides to seek a "political solution" on the South China Sea and not internationalise it, during talks with Mr Sang.

"Fully aware of the growing power disparity, Vietnam sees accommodation as a necessary survival tool in its complex relations with China," said Dr Graham.

The region could gain from increased stability if Vietnam and China can better manage their disputes, say analysts, though it could boost Beijing's efforts to isolate Manila, one of several other claimants in the South China Sea.

Some are optimistic that China and Vietnam can improve ties. They have a joint steering committee at the deputy prime minister level that oversees all aspects of their "comprehensive strategic partnership", including inter-party ties. Land borders are demarcated, and a joint fishing area in the Gulf of Tonkin has been set up.

Several agreements inked during Mr Sang's visit, like a new naval hotline to resolve fishing incidents in disputed waters, also gives rise to optimism.

But China has to view Vietnam's ties with other countries or Vietnamese leaders' remarks on the South China Sea "rationally", as it is Hanoi's right to pick its friends and also natural for leaders to assert their territorial sovereignty, said Dr Xu.

"But in choosing its friends, Vietnam also has to ask itself how it can best protect its long-term interests," he added.

"Will the US and Japan, with their economic weaknesses, be able to help Vietnam for long? Will Vietnam end up depleting its coffers and hurting its economy while upgrading its military?"

kianbeng@sph.com.sg