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BEIJING — While Vietnam’s communist party chief was greeted with full honors as he visited neighboring China this week, the pomp barely papered over tensions between the countries over Hanoi's warming ties with Beijing’s archrival: the United States.
The strained diplomatic dance is partly due to a giant oil rig that China built last summer in waters claimed by Vietnam, which triggered deadly anti-China riots throughout its smaller neighbor.
The oil rig that sparked the problems — since removed — is an example of bitter territorial disputes and China’s assertive behavior throughout the region, which analysts say will only push Vietnam to forge closer ties with the U.S.
“If China pushes too hard or is not accommodating, Vietnam has the option of stepping up ties with the U.S.,” Carl Thayer, an analyst and professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia told Thanh Nien News. “Vietnam has a policy of cooperating with China when their interests overlap and struggling against China when Vietnam’s national interests are affected."
None of that was apparent as Chinese President Xi Jinping greeted Vietnamese Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong for their first summit since relations were plunged into crisis last year. After a gun salute and military honor guard review, the leaders exchanged smiles and handshakes, met with a gathering of Vietnamese and Chinese youths to stress lasting friendship and also signed a host of agreements that will boost bilateral cooperation.
Still, Xi made a veiled reference to the ongoing tensions by warning Trong of the need to “control maritime disputes” over the South China Sea. He also called for “new paradigms” and “new approaches” for solving problems, underscoring the historical bonds of the two communist-led countries.
While taking no position on competing territorial claims, Washington has found common cause with its once-rival Vietnam in opposing China’s expansive nine-dash line, a geographic delineation by China that claims most of the South China Sea. It has also provided Vietnam with five fast patrol vessels in order to enhance “maritime security.”
Alluding to speculation that Trong’s summit with President Barack Obama later this year will signal Vietnam’s tilt towards Washington, China’s official state Xinhua News Agency warned there would be “no room for a wedge in China-Vietnam relations.”
It also rejected speculation that last week’s visit was meant to thwart any strengthening of ties between Vietnam and the U.S.
“Interpretations of Trong’s expected U.S. trip as a move to counterbalance China smell of Cold War-era machination and confrontationalism, which should have been dumped in the dustbin of history,” Xinhua added.
Whatever the motives behind last week’s meeting, Vietnam has a lot to lose if it does not properly manage its relationships with both China and the U.S. The 40 percent plunge in Chinese tourist numbers to Vietnam so far this year shows that the oil rig crisis and anti-Chinese riots still cast a pall over relations. China is Vietnam’s biggest trading partner so improved ties could revive languishing Chinese investment.
“Vietnam has taken a balancing strategy toward the great powers, but it is aware there is more space for cooperation with China, and there is a limit to cooperation with the U.S. because of Washington’s pressure over Hanoi’s human rights and political system,” a Chinese maritime security scholar told NBC News.
“The worst-case scenario is a military partnership between Vietnam and the U.S. — that would have serious impact on Chinese interests,” said the scholar, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
However, a Beijing-based Vietnamese political analyst who also spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject said China shouldn’t worry too much about Vietnam falling into the arms of the U.S.
“China has far more extensive ties with the United States than Vietnam does, and Vietnam isn’t even aiming to match such extensive ties,” the analyst said.