China vexed by Vietnamese diplomacy

Fan Changlong of China’s Central Military Commssion meets the General-Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong. Photo courtesy Xinhua.

Vietnam’s drive for international support in the South China Sea is showing signs of riling the Chinese leadership, which is set on asserting Beijing’s dominance.

Recent visits by the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, to Washington and Tokyo have underlined Hanoi’s determination to resist Chinese expansion in the disputed waters.

A prominent Chinese academic warned that Vietnam’s actions could stir confrontation – an indication of Beijing’s exasperation at Vietnam’s diplomatic initiatives.

“Vietnam’s frequent talks with the US and Japan about the South China Sea should not be viewed as benign,” wrote Li Kaisheng of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, in a commentary for the state run Global Times newspaper.

“Japan’s help to upgrade Vietnamese coast guard vessels is aimed at inciting Vietnam to confront China at sea.”

Destabilising factors

Japan’s coastguard held a joint exercise with their Vietnamese counterparts off Danang this week, an area not far from the Chinese held Paracel islands, which are claimed by Hanoi.

The United States has also resumed occasional “freedom of navigation” missions close to Chinese held positions in the South China Sea.

Mr Phuc’s visit to Washington at the end of last month was seen as a diplomatic coup for Vietnam, which wants to reinvigorate the close relations it forged during the Obama administration.

“It is good to widen your circle of friends. However, if the intention is to guard against your neighbours then it will create destabilizing factors in the future,” wrote Mr Li, reflecting Beijing’s frustration at Vietnam’s proactive diplomacy.

China stresses that both Beijing and Hanoi continue to promote favourable party to party ties, despite the tension in the South China Sea.

“Chinese since ancient times”

Fan Changlong, the Vice-Chairman of China’s Central Military Committee, is the latest senior Communist party official to visit Vietnam.

He stressed the importance of economic cooperation, while the Vietnamese party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, described the two countries as “friendly socialist neighbours”.

However, Mr Fan still felt the need to tell his Vietnamese hosts that the South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times.

A resurgent China can’t reconcile itself to the fact that smaller, weaker neighbours dare to stand up to its demands.

Vietnam’s ASEAN neighbours may be wobbling under Chinese pressure, but President Xi Jinping doesn’t need to be told that Vietnam will prove a much harder nut to crack.