China and Vietnam: Neither Thick Friends nor Constant Antagonists

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’.

For the full article see, ‘China and Vietnam: Neither Thick Friends nor Constant Antagonists’, ICS Analysis, No. 30, May 2015.

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