Vietnam’s precarious diplomatic balancing act continues this week with a six day visit to China by the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, his first since taking office earlier this year.
He will stress trade and investment during his visit, but his meetings will take place in the shadow of the continuing confrontation between the two sides in the South China Sea.
“More disputes and contradictions (will) occur between the two nations as Vietnam is likely to heighten its efforts to safeguard its interests in the South China Sea”, reported the Chinese Communist party run Global Times newspaper.
For China, it is the first in-depth opportunity to assess the intentions of the new Vietnamese leadership appointed at the beginning of the year.
Although the party Secretary-General, Nguyen Phu Trong, remained in place, Vietnamese leaders have become more outspoken in their challenge to China’s growing belligerence in the disputed waters.
Vietnam has also made progress in building strategic ties with a range of others countries, including Japan, India and the United States, to counter-balance what it sees as a growing threat from Beijing.
For all that, China holds many cards: it has strengthened its economic influence over Cambodia and Laos, enabling it to frustrate Vietnam’s efforts to secure unity in ASEAN; significantly enhanced its military potential on disputed islands in the Spratly and Paracel chains; and aggressively brushed aside the challenge to its claims in the South China Sea from an arbitration panel in The Hague.
Trade and investment from China also remain crucial for Vietnam’s continued rapid economic growth.
Mr Phuc is looking for greater access to the Chinese market, seeking to rebalance his country’s huge trade deficit with its northern neighbour.
Analysts say that Vietnam and China have gone some way to mending the severe breach that occurred in 2014, when Vietnamese workers rioted against Chinese companies over Beijing’s move of an oil exploration rig into disputed waters.
However, much trust has been lost, and Vietnam has signalled its determination to resist Chinese pressure by building up its military and strengthening military ties with China’s adversaries from Delhi to Tokyo and Washington.
Mr Phuc will stress the positive side of relations with Beijing and seek to show that the two sides can continue to cooperate on matters of mutual interest.
He will also be aware, however, of inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment at home.
Any attempt to improve ties with Beijing raises suspicion, in the current climate, that the Vietnamese Communist party can not be fully trusted to defend the national interest against its ideological comrades to the north.