Chinese leaders woo Hanoi

Prime Minister Dung, on the right, greets Vice-Premier, Zhang Gaoli. Photo courtesy VNA/VNS

Prime Minister Dung, on the right, greets Vice-Premier, Zhang Gaoli. Photo courtesy VNA/VNS

Vietnam’s complex relationship with China has been back in the spotlight just a week after the Vietnamese Communist Party boss held unprecedented talks with the United States President in the White House.

In a visit announced at short notice, the Chinese Vice-Premier, Zhang Gaoli, held two days of talks with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi.

Mr Zhang, who is also a member of the top decision making body, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, held a widely publicised meeting with the Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.

He also called on the CPV General-Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, who’s recently returned from the United States.

Some Chinese commentators have expressed concern about the improving relationship between Washington and Hanoi – seeing it as part of a scheme to contain Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond.

“It is in the best interest of the two nations, especially Vietnam, to enhance mutual political trust and understanding instead of aggravating differences,” said the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua in a commentary about the visit.

That’s a clear reference to continuing tensions in the South China Sea, where Vietnam has protested against what it sees as growing aggression from Beijing.

Mr Dung is seen as part of a faction in the Communist Party that leans towards the United States, and market reform at home.

He’s seen by many commentators as the favourite to succeed Mr Trong as party boss at next year’s Party Congress.

“Vietnam-China ties have improved and grown when Party and State leaders maintained frequent contact and achieved common understanding on many aspects of their bilateral comprehensive partnership,” he was quoted as saying by state media.

Mr Trong’s visit to Washington was seen as a signal that even party hardliners were losing patience with their Communist comrades in Beijing.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Hanoi said the talks with the visiting Chinese delegation focused on detailed measures to enhance practical cooperation in the fields of economy, trade and investment.

Observers say that Vietnam is attempting to play the United States off against China, and underline its value to both sides.

There were, however, few concrete concessions from President Obama. Restrictions remain on the sale of much sophisticated US weaponry to Vietnam.  President Obama made clear that many differences remain between the two sides, particularly on the question of human rights and democratic freedoms.

China, however, will remain wary of Vietnam’s diplomatic manoeuvring.

The alacrity with which it has sent senior officials to Hanoi suggests it is eager to highlight the benefits, economic and political, of close ties with Beijing.