The Chinese foreign minister was all smiles and compliments in Hanoi this week, while a powerful Chinese naval fleet entered the South China Sea in an unprecedented show of force.
Beijing’s combined strategy of cooperation and military muscle was on full display just days after Vietnam cancelled its second major oil drilling project in a year under pressure from China.
The foreign minister, Wang Yi, gave no hint of the underlying tensions as he lavished praise on Vietnam at the opening of a regional economic summit in Hanoi.
“Hanoi is a beautiful city. Every time I come, I am always impressed by its fast change and dynamism,” he purred, while a Chinese battle group of some 40 ships and an aircraft carrier was spotted in the seas off Hainan Island.
Both sides have chosen not to speak publicly about the latest tensions, with China relying on its navy to do the talking and Hanoi anxious to cover up its latest climb down.
Vietnam’s state controlled media has made no mention of the decision to abruptly cancel a major drilling project off the southeast coast that was to have involved the Spanish firm, Repsol.
China has made clear that any unilateral drilling in waters close to its own ill-defined claims in the South China Sea, close to its self proclaimed “nine-dash line”, would be seen as a hostile act.
Mr Wang, recently promoted to the rank of State Councillor, was full of talk of regional cooperation and liberalised trade during his address at the business summit of the Greater Mekong Sub-region in Hanoi.
The ships offshore make clear to Southeast Asian participants that the alternative to cooperation with China is military force, at a time when the strategic commitment of the United States appears more uncertain than ever.
Satellite pictures showed that China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was at the heart of a sprawling formation of naval vessels – steaming in line in order to display China’s newly acquired military muscle.
Fresh from a similar display off Taiwan, the fleet entered the South China Sea at the beginning of the week and was spotted in waters south of Hainan, the base from which China plans to dominate the South China Sea.
China refused to confirm the presence of the carrier and described the deployment as routine, confident in the knowledge that the region will see it as anything but.
Six submarines and fighter jets were seen out in front of the flotilla, which also contained destroyers, frigates and a tanker arrayed in support of the carrier.
The display follows the docking of an American carrier group in Danang earlier this month.
The port visit was seen as symbolically significant, but appears not to have given Vietnam enough confidence to drill for oil and gas in its own offshore waters.