US-Vietnam ties have improved significantly in recent years as both seek to counterbalance China's rising power in the region. Image: AFP

The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi will pay an official visit to Vietnam from September 10-12 and co-chair the 13th meeting of the Vietnam-China Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation at the invitation of Permanent Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Minister of Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son.

The announcement did not provide further details of his schedule while in Hanoi, but as is customary in the relationship between the two Communist Party-ruled states, Wang is expected to pay courtesy calls on top Vietnamese leaders, possibly including the ailing party boss Nguyen Phu Trong. 

Notably Wang’s trip to Hanoi follows two recent consecutive visits by two senior officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in July and Vice-President Kamala Harris in late August.

Concerns certainly remain in Beijing from the proposal raised by both Austin and Harris during their meetings with Vietnamese leaders to elevate the US relationship with Vietnam from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic.

Looking beyond the announced purpose of Wang’s visit, a question might be asked by many as to whether Vietnam is playing a balancing act between the US and China. Nevertheless, viewing the visit from another perspective, one may ask if China is wary of Vietnam’s increasingly close relationship with the US and wants to pull it back in line.

Since the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, which started in China’s Wuhan province in late 2019 and early 2020 and continues today, Vietnam-China ties have seen more rhetoric than actions, and to a certain extent reached a lower mood than the Vietnam-US relationship.

In 2020, Vietnam and China marked the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic ties but no high-level visits were exchanged. In his Southeast Asia tour in late 2020 and early 2021, Wang Yi went to all ASEAN member states except Vietnam, which was the regional bloc’s chair last year.

In contrast, then-president Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien visited Vietnam to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two former enemies.

China’s aid to Vietnam to fight Covid-19 is greatly outmatched by that provided by the US. In addition, the first donated shipment of 500,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines were prioritized to inoculate Chinese nationals in Vietnam. The Chinese Ministry of Defense recently donated 200,000 doses of Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccines and 201,600 single-use syringes to its Vietnamese counterpart.  

China’s assistance to combat the virus is not up to the level of its comprehensive cooperative strategic partnership with Vietnam yet. The top four powerful pillars of Vietnam, namely the party secretary general, the state president, the prime minister and chairperson of the National Assembly, in their tele-meetings with Chinese counterparts requested Covid vaccines donated to Vietnam.

As it has turned out, thus far only note has been taken of the requests, but no action. China’s inaction implicitly cultivated disappointment in Hanoi and made any friendship rhetoric Kafkaesque or delusive. The disappointment has been fortified by China’s continued aggressive actions in the South China Sea, or East Sea as the Vietnamese call it.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has received considerable support and assistance from the US. Thus far, 6 million doses of vaccines have been donated, of which a million doses of Pfizer vaccines arrived in Vietnam while the US vice-president was in Hanoi.

In addition, the value of technical assistance and programmatic support by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other emergency assistance funding has reached nearly US$44 million.

The US Department of Defense provided 77 ultra-low-temperature vaccine freezers to assist vaccination distribution efforts in all 63 provinces.

Beijing was likely feeling the fire when witnessing Washington’s ties with Hanoi became increasingly intimate. Xiong Bo, the Chinese ambassador to Vietnam, had an unplanned meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on the morning of August 24, the day Harris arrived in Hanoi.

At the meeting, Xiong announced that China would provide an additional 2 million doses of Covid vaccines to Vietnam. In response, Chinh reiterated the country’s policy of independence, autonomy, diversification, multilateralism, and non-alignment with one country against another country.

However, Beijing continued to indicate its dissatisfaction with Hanoi. While the US vice-president was in Hanoi, the Global Times, an outlet affiliated with the People’s Daily controlled by the Communist Party of China, published articles that implicitly threatened Vietnam.

Notwithstanding that, two weeks after Harris left Vietnam, the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi posted a statement on its Facebook page criticizing the US vice-president’s position on China’s bullying in the South China Sea. Notably this statement seemed to target Vietnam rather than the US, as it was published in Vietnamese and Chinese, not English.

The Vietnam-China Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation, established in 2006, is a mechanism that allows high-ranking officials from both sides to meet on an annual basis in either country to discuss ways forward to enhance bilateral ties in a comprehensive manner.

Last year, the committee held its 12th meeting virtually because of Covid-19. The 11th meeting of the committee in 2019 took place in Ho Chi Minh City. This year’s meeting should have been held in China.

However, by holding the meeting in Hanoi after US officials visited Vietnam and on the eve of a possible visit by Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the US this month, China has ulterior motivations and wants to send messages aimed at both Vietnam and the US.

First, China wants to reaffirm that its ties with Vietnam are strategic and comprehensive in all dimensions, at all levels, through different channels, and in all forms. The message to the US here is that China has the upper hand in Vietnam.

Second, Wang is expected to reiterate China’s donation of 2 million doses of Sinopharm vaccines as well as the provision of other equipment to Vietnam to fight the pandemic. The message to the US is that China can be a Covid vaccine provider to Vietnam.

Third, Wang will relay a message from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also the secretary general of CPC, to remind Vietnamese leaders of the relationship between the two parties. The message to the US is that China and Vietnam remain socialist states ruled by communist parties, standing in the same camp.

Overall, the main purpose of Wang’s trip to Hanoi is to pull Vietnam back from getting closer to the US and at the same time floating a message to the US that China’s ties with Vietnam are unbreakable.

Vietnam has been successful and greatly benefited from maintaining the balance in its relationship with both the United States and China. However, Vietnam’s approach is more pragmatic than it once was. It will not be dragged into the competition or rivalry between the two major powers.

Hai Hong Nguyen

Dr Hai Hong Nguyen is an associate researcher at the Centre for Policy Futures, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Queensland. He has published widely on Vietnamese politics. His first book, Political Dynamics of Grassroots Democracy in Vietnam, was published by Palgrave McMillan in 2016.