Given their deep historical linkages, China and Vietnam have a relationship that cannot simply be described as uniformly cooperative or conflictual at any given point of time. Vietnam appears to be a near-permanent bulwark against China in Southeast Asia but it will not and cannot simultaneously be in a state of constant antagonism, either.
Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
The Sino-Vietnamese relationship is complex and multi-dimensional. Even as clashes between the Vietnamese and Chinese continue, including between their naval vessels in the disputed waters of the Paracels and Spratlys, bilateral trade stood at US$58.5 billion in 2014, up by 16 per cent from 2013; about 10 per cent of Vietnam’s exports – mainly food and natural resources – go to China. And while tourism between the two countries has dropped as bilateral relations deteriorated, regular interactions at the sub-national level continue. Nationalist eruptions are kept in check also by the memory of a common struggle against Western colonialism and imperialism. Despite strong nationalist tendencies on either side, like the Chinese, the Vietnamese too, emphasize people-to-people and cultural exchanges.
Party-to-party ties remain deep with regular bilateral visits and interactions focusing on the study of both theory and each other’s experiences, and messages of felicitation on important anniversaries on either side. Top leaders have also met in third countries on the sidelines of various multilateral forums. CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping and his counterpart in the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Nguyen Phu Trong, marked the 65th anniversary of China-Vietnam diplomatic relations through a telephone conversation in February 2015 – the third year that the two have marked the occasion thus. Such regular telephone calls also take place between other officials on the two sides. Trong would later in April 2015 make a formal visit to Beijing as part of the celebrations with a delegation that included ‘about one third of Vietnam’s politburo’.
Another article of mine solicited by the People’s Daily but which it found unable to publish for reasons not fully explained. This article (minus the sub-headings) was requested as early as February for use during the anniversary in April. Some quotes were used by the People’s Daily in translation without running them past me first.
The Asian-African Conference, more commonly referred to as the Bandung Conference, will mark its 60th anniversary in April 2015. This is an opportune time therefore, to ask a few hard questions about the achievements that the Third World have made since the high ideals espoused at the event. The conference was held by the Afro-Asian nations to discuss their common problems and to evolve a joint approach to playing a greater role in world affairs, including strengthening opposition to Western colonialism and imperialism. In hindsight, it is evident that even as Asian and African leaders engaged in lofty political rhetoric, they neither fully trusted each other and nor did they actually have the economic wherewithal to bring their cooperation and development plans to fruition.
Self-Interest over Principle
The final 10-point statement at the end of the Conference focused largely on political goals. Its ‘declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation’, however, has been violated and continues to be violated by the many participants at the Conference. Neither respect for ‘fundamental human rights’ nor the ‘equality of all races’ is a core principle of governance for the vast majority of Asian and African nations yet. Not even India, the country with the longest and strongest democratic of them all, is an exemplar in this matter, even though its free press and strong, independent judiciary mostly manage to hold the executive to account.Read more
Launched in 2013, the so-called ‘new Silk Roads’ trace both land and sea routes from China to Europe and Africa respectively, and form an ambitious Chinese project to win friends and influence people. Where a section of India’s China analysts and policymakers across two different political dispensations have been remiss, is in anticipating the ambition and scale of the Chinese initiative. It goes without saying therefore, that devising a suitable response has been accordingly wanting.
Of the predictions that came true, more sister-province/state and sister-city agreements, announcement of a new visa arrangement, an India-China Think-tank Forum.
It is now slowly but increasingly evident to Indians across the board that China, their largest neighbour, will likely be their most important foreign policy challenge for decades to come. Gradually but surely, China will come to occupy regular attention in India across a range of fields from geopolitics to scientific research and development to political and ideological creativity. In this context, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to China and the media coverage it will generate will be an important milestone in how Indians perceive and understand China.
Modi has gained a reputation for extreme secrecy and last minute ‘deals’ during visits abroad. China, however, will not be such an easy place to do this. Unless, of course, CPC General Secretary and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, is willing to play ball. This however, is unlikely, given the Chinese self-image of being in a league of just two, contending with the US for regional and global domination while everybody else is for all practical purposes, and despite any rhetoric to the contrary, slotted into lower tiers of importance.
What then are the possible agreements that the two sides might reach during the Modi visit?
The agreements related to economic cooperation including infrastructure construction, industrial parks and sister-city and sister-province/state ties will likely number quite a few, even if they will not match the 51 agreements that resulted during the Xi visit to Pakistan. Boosting bilateral trade and investments at the service of the Prime Minister’s flagship ‘Make in India’ campaign will be a big item on the agenda, if not the most important one.
More sister-city and sister-province/state agreements could help accelerate a trend of Chinese sub-national enterprises targeting specific sectors and localities or states in India for economic opportunities. It also makes immense sense for two countries the size and complexity of India and China for their cities and regions to develop their own independent economic linkages with each other. Along the way, there could be significant spillover effects in terms of increasing mutual understanding, greater familiarization with each other’s cultures and ways of working, tourism, educational exchanges and so on.
An agreement for a more liberalized visa regime between the two countries was to be signed during Xi’s India visit in September but was finally abandoned. The agreement will be extremely important for Chinese investors, businessmen and tourists seeking to explore and commit to India.
It is also quite possible that an agreement of some sort on trans-boundary river waters will come to fruition. To expect an all year-round sharing of information might be too much to expect from the Chinese. It is more likely that China will agree to give India another 15 days worth of data on any one river.
An India-China Think-tank Forum is a proposal that has been doing the rounds for some time, now and will likely reach fruition during this visit. This would be an important avenue for a frequent and unhindered exchange of views between the policy and scholar communities on both sides and replicates a similar exercise in the Sino-US context.
One important marker of the Asian century will be how India and China are going to cooperate in the science and technology sector to create solutions for uniquely Third World problems as well as to overcome problems that come from copying a Western model of economic development. To this end, cooperation and joint development of renewable energy technologies, to name just one sector, should be a big part of the agenda, capable of being slotted into both the infrastructure construction and ‘Make in India’ campaigns.
Scientific research can also provide the opportunity to avoid or overcome suspicions in other areas. One idea doing the rounds is cooperation between the two countries on the development of deep sea mining in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are already engaged in this in the southwest Indian Ocean and so is India, so perhaps, this is an opportunity to not just cooperate but also keep an eye on what the other side is doing.
The problem, of course, arises since it is China that is expanding opportunities and finding reasons to be in the Indian Ocean while India’s opportunities to partner with China in similar endeavours along or opposite China’s coast are limited either because of China large territorial and consequently EEZ claims or because India does not often have the wherewithal or the incentives to venture that far. Where it has, New Delhi has preferred to partner with the Japanese or the Vietnamese.
This then leads to a major issue that is also likely to crop up during the visit, namely of Indian receptivity to China’s new ‘one belt, one road’ idea and in particular, the Maritime Silk Road. Given the particular version of historical reinterpretation, rewriting even, that the initiative involves, India is wary of joining in. However, given also the potential of the Chinese initiative to transform the economic, and possibly, the political landscape of Asia, New Delhi must seriously consider if staying out and being unable to exert influence on the process is an option.
As Indian Prime Ministers and political leaders go, Narendra Modi is unique in possessing some significant experience of that country before attaining office. In fact, despite – or perhaps, because of – the differences in world views and how he has gone about understanding China, Modi is probably the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, capable of shaping a uniquely different approach to China.
Based on a presentation made at a conference on The US Rebalance and Asia Pacific Region, organized by the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi, Kerala, 7 March 2015.
The questions asked of China about whether it is engaged in a regional hegemony project in the Asia-Pacific are deeply problematic. For one, there is a great deal of ignorance about China and so the starting assumptions are underlined by misinformation or lack of knowledge of China’s internal political dynamics, its external concerns as well as of its policy processes. For another, similar questions are not asked of the United States. Is the United States engaged in hegemony or is it a power that maintains peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific? Or is it both? Can the responsibility to maintain regional or global peace be separated from the need to also be hegemonic in order to actually successfully carry out that role? These are big questions but the more interesting one from an Indian point of view is why this question today is asked more of China than of the United States. Read more