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China: Beijing Woos A Wary Neighbor

Chinese President Hu (CTK) Chinese President Hu Jintao visit to Vietnam on 31 October and 1 November is China's latest move in a regional charm offensive designed to improve economic ties and dispel fears of its growing power. However, this case involves a neighbor that is very distrustful of Beijing for well-founded historical reasons.

Hu has been in Vietnam twice before, but this was his first trip as China's party and state leader. His stay in Hanoi included meetings with Communist Party leader Nong Duc Manh, President Tran Duc Luong, and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. On 1 November, Hu addressed the National Assembly, a privilege accorded to few foreign dignitaries. The Chinese leader cut his stay short and left early on 2 November on what was supposed to have been the third day of his visit due to the arrival of Typhoon Kai-Tak, which prevented him from making a trip to Danang in central Vietnam.

Speech At Vietnamese Parliament

His message to the National Assembly was that a "rising" China is a good neighbor and a boon to the region.

"Asia is the roof of our common home," Hu said. "China's development cannot be separated from Asia's. China's development is an important component in bringing prosperity to Asia. It is our policy that in politics, Asian countries should make peaceful contacts, in the economic sphere they should cooperate for mutual benefit, in security issues they should cooperate with mutual trust, and in cultural issues they should advance together," he argued. The Chinese leader added that "China and Vietnam have their mountains and rivers adjoining each other. We share a flow of culture, a flow of ideas, and have closely connected interests."
If Beijing plans on building up the East Asian Community to extend its own power in the region, it will have no easy task in doing so.

In the last-mentioned category, Hu was probably alluding to economic ties. China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, with the total value of trade reaching $7.2 billion in 2004. Hu said he wants to boost that figure to $10 billion by 2010. He also announced a $1 billion package of loans for a variety of projects, among them the construction of three power plants in northern Vietnam, including a coal-fueled one in the border province of Quang Ninh.

Hanoi Looking To The Future

The Vietnamese leaders, whose version of reform communism is more modest than that of the Chinese, made it clear in their public statements that they intend to look forward rather than to the past in their dealings with their powerful northern neighbor. The Vietnamese referred to "friendly neighborliness, comprehensive cooperation, durable stability, and a future-oriented vision" as characteristics of bilateral relations.

The two delegations spoke of "continuing negotiations about sea issues" but did not reach any resolution of their long-standing conflicting claims regarding the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which are oil-rich and claimed at least in part by several other neighboring states in addition to China and Vietnam. The two sides did agree, however, to cooperation in "the oil and gas sectors" in the Gulf of Tonkin involving Petro Vietnam and the China National Offshore Oil and Gas Corporation.

During Hu's visit, the state-run media did not refer to past conflicts and tensions between the two neighbors, but their history has often been stormy. The most recent conflict took place in 1979 when Chinese forces invaded Vietnam to "teach it a lesson" after Hanoi ousted the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. The result, however, was that the Chinese People's Liberation Army was humiliated at the hands of its smaller neighbor. Relations have nonetheless improved in recent years, driven mainly by economic considerations.

A History Of Difficult Relations

But the rivalry remains deeply rooted in history and is unlikely to disappear because of growing trade. Part of the problem is simple geopolitics, namely the tendency of a large and powerful state to seek to dominate its smaller neighbors. Specific cultural and historical factors also play a key role. The traditional Chinese view of Vietnam was of a culturally related but subordinate, or "tributary," client state that should understand its place and behave accordingly. The long-standing Vietnamese attitude toward China was that the northern neighbor is a dangerous bully that must be resisted when necessary.

Vietnam is heir to a centuries-old martial tradition, and its pantheon of national heroes and heroines contains many individuals from throughout the ages who distinguished themselves by fighting the Chinese. More recently, an earthy remark by the late Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh is well known to his countrymen; in it he argued that the French and Americans occupied Vietnamese territory for relatively short periods of time, but that the main danger to Vietnam comes from the Chinese, who stay for centuries when they invade.

Today's Chinese leadership is anxious to dispel such traditional mistrust of China's power in the region and stresses that its current "peaceful rise" is a threat to nobody. Meanwhile, Beijing seeks to extend its influence not just through trade and bilateral contacts but through regional organizations. These include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together China, Russia and four Central Asian states.

New Alliances

China is also a strong supporter of the inaugural East Asian Summit that is slated to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December. Invited are the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- to which Vietnam belongs -- as well as China, Japan, South Korea, and India, but not the United States. The purpose of the gathering is to discuss setting up an East Asian Community (EAC). Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has already made it clear that Beijing regards setting up a free-trade area as the central task of the EAC. He has also suggested that regional think tanks come up with a "blueprint" for security integration. In short, it appears that China wants the EAC to be long on substance and willing to take its cues from Beijing.

This might prove wishful thinking. First of all, whereas Vietnam and the other countries of the region are generally happy to do business with a growing Chinese economy, they are not likely to welcome Beijing's growing strategic clout as an unmitigated blessing. Several ASEAN countries maintain military or security agreements with the United States while expanding economic ties to China. Hanoi has also recently improved its relations with Washington, most probably with an eye to balancing Beijing's growing influence in the region.

Secondly, the Far East remains characterized by nation states and not by supranational organizations like the EU. The most successful regional grouping, ASEAN, functions by seeking the lowest common denominator among its diverse members and avoids grand visionary schemes or extensive organizational structures. If Beijing plans on building up the EAC to extend its own power in the region, it will have no easy task in doing so.