By Kenichi Yoshida / Yomiuri Shimbun Hanoi Bureau ChiefHANOI — Something curious caught my attention while I was reading a Xinhua News Agency article about the recently completed 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The article listed socialist countries that had sent congratulatory messages, but the order of these countries differed from the order given following the 18th Party Congress five years ago.
In the previous congress, the order was North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba. But in the article about the latest meeting, Vietnam was listed first, followed by Laos, Cuba and North Korea.
This was a report by state media in a socialist country where every place in a pecking order or ranking carries a meaning. North Korea’s position at the bottom of the list undoubtedly reflects the intense dissatisfaction felt toward Pyongyang as it pushes ahead with its nuclear and missile development programs in defiance of the international community, including China. So was Vietnam’s rise to the top of the list simply a case of that nation being moved up as a result of North Korea’s demotion?
According to a Chinese diplomat who is an old friend of mine, that is not part of the explanation. “Vietnam forms a mainstay of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’,” the diplomat said, referring to a plan trumpeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to create a huge economic bloc. “Think of the order of countries in the article as being a love letter from President Xi to Vietnam.”
Evidence of China’s “courtship” of Vietnam also is visible in the region along their border.
China’s Yunnan Province sits across a river from Lao Cai Province in northern Vietnam. On the Chinese side, two huge signs carry messages directed at Vietnam.
“Let’s construct the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ together and build a new international relationship centered on cooperation and mutual benefit,” says one, while the other exhorts, “Let’s carry on our friendship and build up a joint destiny for China and Vietnam that bears a strategic significance.”
Vietnam, like China, has a one-party system ruled by its Communist Party. Maintaining friendly ties with China, its largest trading partner, is a matter of vital importance. However, no similar signs have been erected on Vietnam’s side of the border. It seems the level of “love” being shown by Vietnam does not match that of its northern neighbor.
“When China says ‘friendship,’ it means the other party going along with its wishes,” a Vietnamese journalist knowledgeable about China-Vietnam relations said frostily. “If the love letter doesn’t get through to the weaker partner, next time China will have no qualms about sending a threatening letter.”
Vietnam was ruled by China for about 1,000 years from the second century B.C., and was invaded by China several times after that. Roads bearing the names of Vietnamese heroes who fought against China — such as Hai Ba Trung, Ly Thuong Kiet, Tran Hung Dao and Le Loi — can be found all over that nation. In the national consciousness, the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War is connected to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Even today, an “anti-China nationalism” still runs strongly through the hearts of many Vietnamese people.
This month, Vietnam hosted a summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which was attended by leaders from countries including the United States and China. A focal point of the meeting was whether China’s moves to strengthen its military footprint in the South China Sea can be shackled.
Vietnam wants to rely on U.S. deterrence to deal with South China Sea issues. However, Vietnam also is wary that cozying up with the United States will lead to U.S. demands for greater democratization. At the same time, Vietnam must avoid any resounding confrontation with China as it seeks to preserve its regime. But any excessive reconciliatory moves risk stoking a domestic eruption of “anti-China nationalism.”
This is the dilemma Vietnam faces as it gets squeezed between Washington and Beijing.