China and Vietnam move to ease tensions

Communist party bosses not known for their transparency or candour, Nguyen Phu Trong meets Xi Jinping in Beijing. Photo courtesy Xinhua

When the leaders of two of the world’s least transparent ruling parties sit down for talks, it’s not realistic to expect a candid assessment from either side about the outcome.

Pious statements, two-faced smiles and jealously guarded secrecy have long been the hallmarks of relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist parties.

However, the recent visit of the Vietnamese party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Beijing, does appear to mark a change in emphasis after the acute tensions of recent years.

The leaders of China and Vietnam resemble householders battening down the hatches in preparation for a fast approaching typhoon.

The imminent inauguration of the Donald Trump introduces uncertainties not seen in the region for many decades.

“Safeguarding peace and stability”

Neither Beijing nor Hanoi want their confrontation in the South China Sea to spiral into open hostilities because of clumsy, aggressive or even unhinged policy initiatives emanating from Washington.

Vietnam and China agreed to “manage well their maritime difference, avoid actions that complicate the situation and escalate tensions, and safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea”, said a communique released by China’s Xinhua news agency.

Of course, similar sentiments have been expressed before through clenched teeth, and no-one believes the bitter territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly islands have been resolved.

However, the latest communique was unusually detailed.

Both sides committed to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and strive for the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct.

Vietnam and China can still be expected to continue strengthening their military postures on their isolated island outposts and beyond.

Vietnam will continue to put much effort into its energetic multilateral diplomacy, which has also just seen a visit by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and an offer of more patrol boats for the defence forces.

But the abrupt nature of Mr Trong’s departure for Beijing, and the seeming urgency of their talks on the South China Sea, indicate a new desire to manage their differences peacefully.

Caution justified

Just six months ago, the strategic picture in the South China sea looked very different.

The Philippines had just won a landmark ruling at The Hague, which comprehensively rejected China’s ambitions claims to most of the South China Sea.

The United States was stepping up naval patrols as a warning to China, and the prospect of a victory for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election held out hope of more support for Asian allies and partners, including Vietnam, and continued efforts to contain China’s strategic ambitions.

Vietnam’s policy of standing up to China appeared to be paying off, but even then the leadership in Hanoi was characteristically cautious, declining to crow about China’s reversal at The Hague.

Such caution has been amply justified by subsequent events.

The victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the subsequent Philippine election and ardour of his love-in with China significantly undercut the Vietnamese position in the South China Sea.

The election of Donald Trump added an alarming new note of uncertainty. Could Vietnam continue to rely on support and encouragement from Washington ? Would the Trump administration seek trade war and open confrontation with China ? Was Vietnam in danger of being caught in the crossfire of great power politics in an unstable and deeply unpredictable new environment.

In the absence of answers, Vietnam appears to be doing what it does best – proceeding with caution and seeking to neutralise the danger of conflict.

Ominous future for human rights activists

The overriding impression is that Vietnam is tentatively moving closer to China again following its rapid improvement of relations with the United States in recent years.

This will not be welcomed by many in Vietnam.

Deeply held suspicions that the Communist party cannot be trusted to defend national interests against China’s encroachments will be exacerbated.

For human rights campaigners and pro-democracy advocates, the prospects for the immediate future are ominous.

Vietnam was encouraged by Washington, to a greater or lesser extent, to ease the worst excesses of political repression, and allow the development of labour and environmental rights.

It will feel no such constraints as it seeks a new understanding and cooperation with its fellow authoritarians in Beijing.