In a bid to ease tensions after the deployment of a Chinese oil rig to disputed waters, Vietnam is sending a special envoy to Beijing. But Martin Großheim tells DW the row has changed the way Vietnamese perceive China.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said on Monday, August 25, that Le Hong Anh, a member of the Communist Party's powerful politburo, had been invited to meet Chinese leaders. "The goal of the trip is to discuss measures to ease and avoid escalating tensions as before, while also deepening relations between the two parties and countries," said ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh.
The two-day visit, set to begin on Tuesday, is a move to improve ties between the Communist neighbors which have been locked in a dispute over parts of the South China Sea. The spat intensified when Beijing deployed a massive oil rig in waters Vietnam claims as its exclusive economic zone.
China moved the rig on July 16, saying its mission was complete. The installation of the oil rig triggered anti-China protests across Vietnam, which led to riots in several industrial zones. Beijing recently welcomed Vietnam's decision to compensate the victims of the anti-China protests.
In the meantime, however, Hanoi has also been welcoming numerous visitors from the United States, including four senators and the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey.
Dr. Martin Grossheim, Vietnam expert and adjunct professor at Passau University in Germany says in a DW interview that while the visit indicates that the Sino-Vietnamese row may be over, there is a lot of anti-Chinese resentment among the Vietnamese population. He adds that the crisis in the South China Sea has changed the way that China is perceived in Vietnam.
Grossheim says the vast majority of Vietnamese wants peace and certainly welcomes any step that helps ease tensions
DW: Why has the Vietnamese leadership decided to ease tensions with China?
Martin Grossheim: The decision of the Vietnamese leadership to pay compensation to Chinese companies and victims of the anti-Chinese riots and to send Politburo member Le Hong Anh as a special envoy of Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong must be seen in the context with the high-level US visits in Hanoi in recent weeks.
To send Le Hong Anh who as the former Minister of Public Security and a standing member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam holds an important position in the Party leadership can be interpreted as a diplomatic signal to Beijing that Hanoi wants to balance relations with the US and with the People's Republic of China (PRC).
China has also welcomed Vietnam's decision to compensate the victims of the anti-China protests in May, is the row over?
Right now, the row is over. However, as I realized during a recent research trip to Vietnam, there is a lot of anti-Chinese resentment among the Vietnamese population.
In case the Chinese leadership takes actions that are considered as provocative by many Vietnamese such as building an oil drifting platform in territory that is also claimed by Vietnam there could be an outbreak of this resentment. On the other hand, next time the Vietnamese security apparatus might be better prepared to cope with this challenge.
How is Hanoi justifying the move vis-à-vis the Vietnamese population?
Although there is a lot of anti-Chinese resentment among the Vietnamese population, the vast majority of Vietnamese wants peace and certainly welcomes any step that helps ease tensions. However, if Le Hong Anh's has to make concessions during his visit in Beijing, the reaction among many Vietnamese could be negative.
How dependent is the Vietnamese economy on China?
China is Vietnam's largest trade partner. Furthermore, Chinese companies are heavily involved in all kinds of projects in Vietnam, especially in the field of infrastructure. The Vietnamese leadership has realized that it should diversify its economic relations to make Vietnam less economically dependent on the big neighbor in the North, but this cannot be achieved overnight.
Has this dispute led Vietnam to forge closer alliances with other countries?
Yes, the dispute has led Vietnam to deepen its comprehensive partnership with the US. This is reflected in mutual visits: In July 2014 Poliburo member Pham Quang Nghi visited the US; Republican Senator John McCain and - more importantly - the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Armed Forces visited Hanoi this month - the first visit of such a high-level US general since 1971. There is evidence that in the future the US might allow arms sales to Vietnam.
The spat betwen both nations intensified when Beijing deployed a massive oil rig in waters Vietnam claims as its exclusive economic zone
Similarly, Vietnam has deepened relations with Japan which has pledged to send six naval boats to Vietnam which would boost Hanoi's naval capacity.
What stance do you expect both countries to take in the future vis-à-vis territorial disputes in the South China Sea?
The crisis in the South China Sea has changed the way that China is perceived in Vietnam, even within the Vietnamese leadership. Whereas after the end of the Cold War common ideological interests were emphasized, now the leadership in Hanoi has realized that it should not predominantly rely on China. Hanoi still holds the option to pursue legal action against Beijing in reserve and next time might go ahead to sue China.
Dr. Martin Grossheim is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Southeast Studies at Passau University/Germany. His research and teaching interests focus on modern Vietnamese history, Cold War history and intelligence studies.