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Sieren's China: The future of China - Vietnam relations

Vietnam's president will be attending the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. It will be interesting to see how Vietnam tries to improve its negotiating position with China, writes DW's Frank Sieren.

Whether you are a global super power or not, it is always important to try to get along with the neighbors. That's because if there are problems, they can quickly end up on your doorstep. For China, this is particularly the case with its neighbor Vietnam: there has often been conflict. This is what makes Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang's attendance at the Belt and Road Forum on Sunday and Monday so interesting. The Forum will serve to build up China's cooperation with countries along the former Silk Road.

A long history of conflict

Only recently were the two states at loggerheads over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. In 2014 China erected an oil rig in Vietnamese territorial waters, which drove Vietnam to military rearmament. What followed was a serious dispute between the two neighbors.

Frank Sieren (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl)

DW's Frank Sieren

Although this conflict still has not been resolved, both parties have come to see reason and are now seeking a diplomatic solution, rather than pointing missiles at each other. And they have also begun to expand their bilateral economic relationship.

After decades of problems, that began with two wars, in 1979 and 1988, and ended with the fight over the islands, there appears to be a positive political upturn in relations between the two countries. This was already clearly evident in January during the visit to Beijing by the head of the Vietnamese politburo, Nguyen Phu Trong, where an enhanced strategic partnership was agreed upon.

The Belt and Road Forum will provide a good opportunity for President Tran Dai Quang to further this development. His agenda includes meetings with China's President Xi Jinping, as well as other top politicians. Both states will be hosting a workshop on bilateral cooperation attended by 500 members of the business community.

The forum's main topic, which is evident from its title, is the further planning and realization of China's project,"The New Silk Road." It will focus on numerous infrastructure projects for the 28 participating countries. By the end of last year, the China Development Bank had provided loans of around 160 billion dollars in connection with the Belt and Road Project. Further contracts worth around 350 billion dollars are currently being negotiated.

Although Vietnam does not lie directly on the Silk Road's mainland route in the direction of Europe, the coastal nation still has an important role to play in the sea route through the South China Sea. This is otherwise known as the Maritime Silk Road - a parallel route to that on the mainland.

To support this maritime route, a large port has been built just over the border in the Chinese city of Qinzhou. The problem is that the port has not yet generated as much revenue as expected. It handled 1.8 million containers in 2016 and should reach 5 million by 2020.

In comparison, other major Chinese ports, such as Shenzhen, Ningbo and Shanghai, annually handle well over 20 million containers. And this is where Vietnam could take on a larger role. According to Chinese estimates, in 2016, bilateral trade between China and Vietnam was worth 98 billion dollars. China has been Vietnam's largest trade partner for the last 13 years. But there is also a degree of dependency the other way around. China's smaller neighbor counts as one of its most important rice suppliers.

Who owns the water in the Mekong River?

It is clear that relations between the two countries are strongly dominated by economic interests. It would be to Vietnam's benefit to expand and improve these interests in order to develop a stronger basis for negotiation with Beijing.

For apart from the disagreement about the islands in the South China Sea, a further issue has been becoming increasingly important: Vietnam's reliance on the Mekong River for its water supply is contrary to China's need for the river to provide water and electricity. To serve this need, China is currently building hydroelectric dams.

The question of who will be able to decide about the use of the water in the Mekong River will likely be far more important in the future than the sovereignty of the islands. Of course, Vietnam poses no military threat to China. This is mainly because the Vietnamese government has been following a long-term defense policy based on the "Three Nos" : no military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil, and no cooperation with another state in order to fight a third state. This has made the new Silk Road a good and neutral area to develop bilateral relations.

DW's correspondent, Frank Sieren, has been living in Beijing for the last 20 years.

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