Vietnam, China: Economic Prosperity Leads to Heightened Tensions

8 MINS READOct 5, 2011 | 12:03 GMT
Vietnam News Agency/AFP/Getty Images
While China's economic ascendency has been well documented, Beijing's longtime regional competitor, Vietnam, is steadily growing in economic and political relevance in the region, due in no small part to its economic ties to the Chinese. Historically, China has been the more powerful of the two, seeking to contain its neighbor to the south. As their economies continue to prosper, they will attempt to extend their influence in the region, but because of their geographic proximity — and because the areas they seek to influence overlap — Beijing and Hanoi will maintain a state of heightened tension for the foreseeable future.
Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Vietnam's Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong will visit Beijing from Oct. 11 to Oct. 15 for discussions with Chinese officials. The visit is part of a series of meetings that seemingly indicate reconciliation between China and Vietnam following heightened tensions over the South China Sea from April to June. It also comes amid Beijing's stated displeasure over India and Vietnam's closer defense ties. These events typify the manner in which Vietnam has dealt with China throughout history. As a regional competitor, Vietnam has only been able to move so far against China, given its historical economic and political dependence on its northern neighbor. Over the past decade, however, many Southeast Asian economies, including Vietnam's, have become more integrated into the international economic system, bringing them newfound prosperity. With this prosperity, Vietnam is now able to pursue its regional objectives of further consolidating its strategic buffers in the South China Sea and Indochina and securing its northern border. The problem is that these objectives run counter to those of China, which, like Vietnam, is in a strong enough position that it can push its regional influence outward to fend off what it sees as impending threats. Therefore, tensions between the two countries can be expected to increase in the near future.

Vietnam's Geopolitical Imperatives

Secure borders are essential for any country, but they are especially critical for countries, such as Vietnam, that abut stronger powers. Vietnam shares a 1,347-kilometer (836-mile) border with China, which at various times throughout history has invaded or occupied northern Vietnam. It is little wonder that foremost of Hanoi's geopolitical imperatives is securing its northern border. Indeed, history has instilled in the Vietnamese people a distrust of China. China's involvement in Vietnam dates back to 214 B.C., when Emperor Qin Shi Huang consolidated southern China and established local administrations in the north of what is now Vietnam. As the Qin Dynasty ended, a Chinese warlord named Zhao Tuo founded the kingdom of Nam Viet, which eventually fell after China was reunified under the Han Dynasty. The Han Chinese overtook Nam Viet and remained there for hundreds of years, bringing with them elements of Chinese culture that remain to this day. The kingdom in northern Vietnam gained independence from China in the 10th century when China was weak, but this independence was largely nominal; it was relegated to a tributary state, whereby China would receive concessions in exchange for a promise not to invade. China has retained its interest in the affairs of Vietnam ever since. It opposed the French presence in Indochina in the 18th century, and it supported the communist government in North Vietnam from 1954 to 1978 while opposing the U.S.-controlled government in the south. At present, China maintains considerable influence over Vietnam through ideological, political and economic ties. While securing its northern border provides Vietnam some reprieve from threats emanating from the north, it must also secure its other borders by creating strategic buffers in Indochina and the South China Sea. Some 1,650 kilometers in length and about 50 kilometers at its widest point, Vietnam's geography lends itself to partition along north-south lines — in fact, it has a longer history of partition than unification. Its second geopolitical imperative, therefore, is to continue solidifying its influence in Indochina in the west and the South China Sea to the east. This is why Hanoi is very active in Laos and Cambodia. Those countries came under Vietnamese influence in the early 1900s, and after the unification of Vietnam in 1975, it further attempted to extend influence to the west. It nurtured Laos' communist movement and eventually built a pro-Vietnamese Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPDP) government, secured through 25 years of defense treaties and the deployment of Vietnamese troops. In Cambodia, the establishment of the Khmer Rouge regime, which was hostile toward its eastern neighbor, led Hanoi to invade the country, keeping troops there until the late 1980s. Despite a reduced presence in both countries since then, Vietnam has retained considerable influence politically and economically. Maintaining a presence in the South China Sea is likewise important for Vietnam, a country with 3,444 kilometers of coastline, excluding islands — a significant amount of territory to defend against an invading force. Just as Vietnam is susceptible to division from threats emanating from the west, unchecked foreign navies could move in from the east, bisecting the country at its narrowest point. This is why controlling the Paracel Islands, located in the South China Sea parallel to the country's geographical midpoint, is critical for Vietnam. Since 1975, Vietnam has occupied 29 islets in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, and the revenue from energy exploration around the islands accounted for nearly 30 percent of the Vietnam's gross domestic product in 2010. Vietnam's claim to the Spratlys and the Paracels runs counter to China's claim to the entire South China Sea, which it considers an important shipping lane, potential energy source and strategic buffer. Contention with China over islands to its southeast are not new, dating back the late 19th century when Vietnam was under French colonial rule. In 1974, this ongoing dispute resulted in a military conflict between China and South Vietnam over the Paracels. China has since claimed the Paracels in their entirety, but territorial disputes over those islands and the Spratly Islands never fully ceased.

China's Geopolitical Imperatives and Impending Competition

China's geopolitical imperatives are similar to those of Vietnam. Like Hanoi, Beijing must control its buffer regions, including Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet and Xinjiang, the Yunnan-Guangxi Plateau, Hainan and Taiwan-Fujian area, and Indochina. Another of China's imperatives is to protect its coast, though this comes less from fear of invasion than it does from securing its economic interests. But China and Vietnam's proximity presents an inevitable problem: The strategic buffers over which they compete overlap. And it is the pursuit of these overlapping areas that brings the two states into competition with one another — especially when economic and political circumstances allow them to pursue their geopolitical imperatives. Such is the case with China and Vietnam now. While China's economic ascendency has been well documented, many Southeast Asian nations are enjoying newfound economic prosperity and regional and international integration, including Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. In 2010, Vietnam saw the third highest growth among all Asian economies — China's and India's saw the highest — due in large part to economic reform and restructuring that allow the country to open up its economy to promote external trade and attract foreign investment. Because China has identified Vietnam as the most capable player in Indochina, Beijing has sought to contain Vietnam from expanding its economic and political influence into Laos and Cambodia while attempting to create a buffer of its own. This helps explain China's growing political ties with Laotian and Cambodian leadership, as well as its rapidly expanding economic interest in the countries. In short, China is looking to increase its presence in Indochina and Southeast Asia as a counterbalance to Vietnam and as a buffer to its own territory, as evidenced by China investing some $344 million into Laos — more than any other country in 2010 — for mining, hydropower and agriculture projects. In addition, China showed it would fight militarily for its claim to the South China Sea. In 1988, for example, clashes broke out between China and the Philippines in those waters. More recently, as China seeks to evolve into a blue-water naval power, Beijing is maintaining its assertive position in this territorial claim, and the South China Sea has shot to the top of its regional security agenda. It has opposed any exclusionary bilateral negotiations over the issue, and it has likewise excluded third-party involvement, particularly that of the United States as well as Vietnam. While the Vietnamese economy is improving, it is not without problems — high inflation and a weak currency, to name just two — and these problems are taking a toll on the Vietnamese public. But this will not hamper Hanoi's attempts to challenge China in the region; it has been doing so for the past decade. Increased global integration, brought about in part by Vietnam's "friend to all" policy, has allowed Vietnam to engage with a wide range of countries, the purpose of which is to counter Beijing. Indeed, Hanoi has been the most active among its neighbors in pursuing strategic partnerships, as evidenced by its purchase of six Kilo-class submarines from Russia. Hanoi is also actively pursuing strategic relations with other powers, including the United States, Japan and India, particularly in the South China Sea, which Beijing see as a threat to its claim to the sea. Now is a relatively unique time in Vietnam's history. It is unified, and it has the economic and political wherewithal to challenge China in the region — though whether it will be successful remains to be seen. Hanoi's geopolitical imperatives have not changed, even if its economy has. But because those imperatives coincide with China's, tensions between the two countries can be expected to continue, and perhaps worsen, in the near future.

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