Vietnam is set to send a special envoy to China this week following a particularly tense few months in relations amid a flare-up around the ongoing South China Sea dispute between the communist neighbors. On Monday, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry announced that Le Hong Anh, one of the top-ranked members of the Communist Party’s powerful politburo, had been invited to meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing in order to repair badly-strained ties between the two governments.
The meeting, which is set to take place in the Chinese capital from Tuesday through Wednesday, comes in the wake of Vietnam’s decision to compensate the victims of anti-China protests in May. The move was welcomed by China’s foreign ministry on Monday and represents the most concrete shift in the Vietnamese government’s stance towards Beijing over the past few months, a period which has been characterized by an unprecedented level of hostile rhetoric from Hanoi.
China’s provocative decision to deploy a $1-billion oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam back in early May provoked an uproar across Vietnam, where displays of public political protests against the country’s powerful neighbor are rare. That the movement appeared to be at least partly sanctioned by the country’s communist authorities revealed the extent to which the episode frayed ties between the allies. While tensions have calmed somewhat since China’s relocation of the rig in mid-July, the underlying sense of grievance within Vietnam towards Beijing’s territorial aggression has a long history and is unlikely to dissipate soon.
Which is why Hanoi is likely eager to play this diplomatic rapprochement delicately. As Reuters points out,
The China row has put Vietnam’s leadership in a tricky spot. While a prolonged period of bad blood with China risks exposing a far smaller economy – which relies heavily on Chinese materials for its manufacturing sector – perceived concessions to Beijing could prove deeply unpopular at home.
Over-dependency on trade with China is a source of friction and even members of the secretive Communist Party of Vietnam have spoken up about “escaping” China’s orbit.
This shift in diplomacy has already manifested itself in more robust ties between Vietnam and other neighboring states with similar grievances against China, including the Philippines. It has also resulted in Hanoi’s subtle courting of other regional heavyweights like India and Japan while displaying its openness to strengthening relations with the United States. Tokyo has opportunistically attempted to seize on the rift between the communist states, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leveraging the tensions to boost his government’s position with regional body ASEAN.
Though Hanoi may be playing it safe at the moment by attempting to ease tensions with Beijing, it is becoming increasingly clear that the events of the past two months may have irrevocably set into motion a regional shift for the communist state and has, at the very least, prompted some serious re-thinking at the top levels of Vietnam’s government around its long-term foreign relations.