Last month’s visit by Vietnamese Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong to Beijing appeared to smooth over differences between the two countries who have competing claims to the Paracel and Spratly island chains in the South China Sea. Both sides pledged to settle disputes peacefully and to work toward a code of conduct for maritime operations. The pledge for peace followed “war-like rhetoric” on trade relations with Beijing and confrontational comments on Taiwan expressed by U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his nominated cabinet members.
The first test of this renewed friendship between Hanoi and Beijing came quickly after their meeting, as several Vietnamese assembled for protest in Hanoi on January 19. This time around, Vietnamese authorities were well-prepared for this annual protest, scheduled to commemorate the lives of Vietnamese soldiers who lost their life trying to protect the Vietnamese-controlled Paracel islands, which were seized by China on January 19, 1974.
According to Reuters, some 20 protesters were dragged onto a bus after they ignored a warning to disperse. Reports said the protesters had been marching with banners and chanting “Demolish China’s Invasion” along with other nationalistic slogans.
The swift crackdown on protesters signals an improvement in Vietnam’s relations with Beijing, which sank to a low after China moved an offshore oil rig into disputed waters in May 2014. At that time, protests around Vietnam broke out, resulting in the deaths of some Chinese workers and the evacuation of thousands of Chinese out of the country.
Despite improved relations, the Vietnamese have long distrusted their biggest neighbor, and have been quietly building up their military defenses with the assistance of India, Israel, Japan and the U.S. During a visit to Vietnam last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered Hanoi a concessional loan to help pay for six new coastguard patrol boats, worth some $338 million.
Just days before Abe’s visit, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi, where both expressed satisfaction over the development of Vietnam-U.S. ties after the 2013 establishment of comprehensive partnership. How the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, will approach the South China Sea disputes has drawn some criticism, although in Tillerson’s recent letter (PDF) to Senator Ben Cardin, Tillerson seemed to back off this week from his threat of force to prevent China from accessing islands it occupies, stressing: “the United States seeks peaceful resolution of disputes.”
However Chinese President Xi Jinping or the new Trump administration decide to handle disputes in the South China Sea, Hanoi appears to be hedging its bets by making friends – a diversifying foreign policy which has served it well in the past. Yet Hanoi will need to maintain a careful balance between mollifying a nationalist Chinese leadership up north and Vietnam’s own nationalistic population.