Despite appearances that Vietnam is drawing closer to the U.S. with the recent upgrade in ties to comprehensive strategic partnership, Vietnam-China relations, especially party-to-party ties, remain strong, writes Lye Liang Fook.
The upgrade of U.S.-Vietnam ties two rungs upwards from a comprehensive partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam earlier this month has again thrown the spotlight on how Hanoi navigates the complexities of U.S.-China dynamics. However, little attention is accorded to the strong party-to-party ties between China and Vietnam that anchor their relationship. The two countries see value in maintaining strong party-to-party relations which imposes a limit to how close Vietnam can get to the U.S.
The Chinese Communist Party of China (CCP) and Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) share a common history of fighting Western imperialists and foreign invaders. The CCP led by Mao Zedong extended some ideological, political and material support to the CPV in its struggle for independence from the French. This support was significantly stepped up during the CPV’s fight against the Americans. Their party ties have evolved over time to stay relevant to the needs of the two countries. When Vietnam embarked on doi moi reforms in 1986 to experiment with a market economy, it looked to China as a model as the latter had started its open door and reform policy earlier in 1978.
China and Vietnam have a vested interest in ensuring that their ruling communist parties remain in power and retain dominance. To this end, they have stressed the importance of strengthening experience-sharing and mutual learning. They have established a high-level party platform, co-chaired by a Political Bureau member from each side, to learn from the experience of each other. Since the early 2000s, they have held 17 workshops on a range of issues such as party strengthening and building; fighting corruption; guiding mass opinion; managing agriculture, rural areas and farmers’ issues; tackling the 2008 financial crisis; to improving social governance in the information age. By learning from each other, the CCP and CPV seek to strengthen party institutions and enhance ideological legitimacy.
Party-to-party ties further serve the important function of setting the overall framework for China-Vietnam relations. In joint statements issued after every high-level party exchange, the CCP and CPV set the overall direction, tone and even areas for bilateral cooperation. During low points in relations, the two countries have relied on party ties to keep differences in check and bring relations back on track. Following the tense standoff over the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-rig incident in 2014, Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong dispatched special envoy Le Hong Anh, a Politburo member, to Beijing in August 2014 to mend relations. In return, Xi Jinping sent Yu Zhengsheng to visit Vietnam in December 2014. The fact that Yu ranked fourth in the CCP hierarchy indicated that China-Vietnam relations had turned the corner.
The regular high-level exchanges between the CCP and CPV mark a higher order of interaction compared to the government-to-government exchanges between the two countries. Since Xi Jinping became China’s general secretary in 2012, Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has made three visits to China in April 2015, January 2017 and October 2022. The October 2022 visit stands out as this was intended to fulfil Nguyen Phu Trong’s promise to Xi Jinping to make China his first international visit after his re-election as general secretary of the CPV in January 2021 and after he suffered a stroke in April 2019. The visit reciprocated Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam in November 2017 when Xi chose Vietnam to be the first overseas destination after his re-election as China’s general secretary. Xi had previously visited Vietnam in November 2015, and there is a standing invitation for Xi to visit Vietnam in 2023 to mark the 15th anniversary of China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic partnership.
The CCP and CPV share an inherent fear of “colour revolutions” and “peaceful evolution” instigated by foreign elements and have committed to closer cooperation to counter such threats. America’s narrative of democracies versus autocracies provides further justification for the CCP and CPV to draw closer. China has previously cautioned Vietnam not to be lulled into a false sense of security when countries like the U.S. seek closer cooperation with the CPV while mounting a scathing attack on the CCP. It added that the U.S. combative approach towards socialist China poses long-term threats to socialist Vietnam since the country is under the leadership of the CPV. A related issue is Western countries’ criticisms of the human rights record of China and Vietnam, which both regard as interference in their internal affairs.
Days before the upgrade of its ties with the U.S., Vietnam received a senior party delegation from China in an effort to cast its relations with the major powers in context. While there are reasons to draw closer to the U.S. due to concerns over Chinese actions in the South China Sea, it is also in Vietnam’s interest to maintain a good relationship with China. It is likely that China’s cognisance of Vietnam’s position has led to its more moderate reaction to the upgrade in U.S.-Vietnam ties at the official level. Its foreign ministry spokesperson reminded Vietnam to accord priority to the China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership and ensure that the development of Vietnam-U.S. ties does not target any third party. Beijing appears confident that when push comes to shove, it can exert some leverage over Hanoi via the party channels. From Vietnam’s perspective, while party ties with China are useful, Hanoi has shown that it will not hesitate to voice its objections if its national interests are encroached upon as had happened in 2014.
Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow and Assistant Director at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.
This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on 25 September 2023.
Image credit: Xinhua via Embassy of the PRC.