“Xi not welcome in Vietnam” – activists

Effusive welcome for Xi in London.

Effusive welcome for Xi in London.

The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has been enjoying a lavish welcome on his visit to Britain – feted by the Conservative government there as the harbinger of a “golden era” in relations between Beijing and London.

The visit highlights the growing international clout of China, and of its self confident and authoritarian leader.

But Mr Xi he can expect a far more ambivalent reception closer to home on one of his next foreign visits – an expected autumn visit to Vietnam.

A group of Vietnamese activists have petitioned the government in Hanoi to withdraw its invitation to Mr Xi, on the grounds that he’s promoting aggression in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Vietnamese leaders themselves have also been increasingly outspoken in their criticism of China’s activities in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The visit comes at an awkward moment for a Vietnamese Communist Party leadership roiled by internal power struggles in the run up to next year’s party congress.

Senior figures have been trying to signal their growing independence from Beijing, and to burnish their nationalist credentials, without risking too serious a breach with their comrades in Beijing.

An expected visit by President Obama in November further complicates the picture, as Vietnam tries to walk a delicate path in its relations with the two superpowers.

The President, Truong Tan Sang, recently challenged the legality of China’s building work on three reefs in the disputed Spratlys – including the apparent construction of military airfields.

The Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, told the National Assembly this week that tension in the South China Sea had had a negative impact on Vietnam’s development.

He vowed to defend national sovereignty.

However, pro-democracy activists believe the government is vulnerable to criticism that it is not doing enough to stand up to Vietnam’s giant northern neighbour.

In an open letter, a hundred activists said Mr Xi’s invitation should be cancelled as “a necessary diplomatic response to assert our position against a neighbour that has oppressed and looked down upon the Vietnamese people.”

One of the activists, La Viet Dung, told Voice of America that China’s continuing expansion in the South China Sea meant that the Chinese leader was not welcome.

The dissident blogger, Le Anh Hung, was quoted as saying that the people were more concerned about the nation’s sovereignty than the leadership, and their voices must be heard.

China may look like an unstoppable force, and huge economic opportunity, to Conservative politicians in far away London.

But for Vietnam, the stakes are much higher, and the dangers far more clear cut.