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China’s Xi pushes more trust with Vietnam after Hanoi’s move closer to Washington

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave as they arrive in Hanoi on December 12, 2023.Luong Thai Linh/AFP/Getty Images

China and Vietnam, centuries-old rivals with longstanding tensions over conflicting claims in the South China Sea, on Tuesday agreed to build trust and expand cooperation — just months after Hanoi upgraded its relations with Washington.

At a summit in Hanoi, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong called for the bolstering of their strategic relationship and agreed to cooperate on issues ranging from maritime patrols to trade and crime prevention, in what Chinese state media hailed as a “new positioning of relations” between the Communist-ruled neighbors.

The two leaders also pledged that their countries would build a community with a “shared future” — using a key Xi phraseology, according to statements released by both sides’ official media following their meeting in Hanoi Tuesday.

Trong called Xi’s two-day visit to the capital “a new historic milestone,” which would take the relations between the two Communist parties and countries “to a new height,” according to state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA).

The two sides agreed to “unceasingly consolidate political trust,” and build ties “on the basis of mutual respect, equal and win-win cooperation” with respect for each other’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Vietnamese report said.

A Chinese account of the meeting released Tuesday also stressed bolstering trust but made no mention of sovereignty and territorial integrity in relation to their ties.

Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan were greeted with a 21-gun salute, streets lined with flag-waving children and a military band serenade during their arrival Tuesday afternoon for what is Xi’s first to visit Vietnam in six years and fourth overseas trip since beginning his third term as China’s President earlier this year.

The trip follows a September visit to Vietnam from US President Joe Biden, when Washington and Hanoi upgraded their ties amid growing trade between them and shared concern over China’s expanding military footprint in the South China Sea.

Underlying tensions between Vietnam and China have flared in recent years as an increasingly assertive and more powerful Beijing militarized artificial islands and ramped up its maritime presence to assert its “sovereignty” in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and other regional governments holds competing claims.

Among those areas of agreement inked Tuesday were plans for joint military patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea and the establishment of a hotline for communication about “unexpected incidents arising from fisheries activities at sea,” according to VNA.

That could signal interest in smoothing those frictions. The information released by the news agency did not specify which government agencies would be involved in the hotline past noting that it was for incidents from fisheries activities.

China and Vietnam have engaged in patrols in the demarcated Gulf of Tonkin in the past and as recently as earlier this month, according to Vietnam’s national radio broadcaster.

Speaking during his meeting with Xi, Trong called for both countries to “respect each other’s legal and legitimate interests; not to complicate the situation; settle disputes via peaceful measures in accordance with international laws,” according to VNA.

In his remarks, Xi said China and Vietnam should “turn challenges posed by maritime issues into opportunities of bilateral cooperation.”

The meetings come at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the vast waterway, including many features hundreds of miles from mainland China. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also hold competing claims.

Chinese and Filipino vessels have engaged in several bloodless confrontations in recent months as Manila seeks to protect its claims while China ignores a 2016 ruling from an international tribunal denying Beijing’s claim of historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong during a welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on December 12, 2023.Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images

The clashes come despite China and the Philippines establishing a new hotline earlier this year between their foreign ministries’ ocean affairs bureaus to prevent possible miscommunication in disputed waters.

Tense encounters have also taken place between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in recent years, adding to decades of mistrust between the two neighbors.

Xi’s visit to Vietnam also comes as the Chinese leader is seeking to stabilize diplomatic relations with a number of key partners, as Beijing faces economic challenges at home and remains locked in a damaging rivalry with Washington.

Beijing “believes Vietnam will continue to support China in opposing external interference and firmly advancing the great cause of national reunification,” Xi said Tuesday. The comment was an apparent reference to China’s frictions with the US and its aim of taking control of the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party claims despite never having ruled.

The 36 agreements signed between Beijing and Hanoi also bolstered cooperation on a range of other issues including propaganda, crime prevention, trade, transportation and digital economy and telecoms, according to the list from VNA.

The two sides called for promoting cooperation between Vietnam’s “Two Corridors, One Belt” framework for connectivity with China and Xi’s flagship Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Hanoi has backed the scheme but largely been reticent to accept significant Chinese funds.

Tuesday’s agreements suggested that China may offer aid for the development of a cross-border railway, though there were limited details released.

The two leaders also signed a memorandum of understanding on enhancing cooperation in digital economy and digital data in a potential boost to Xi’s Digital Silk Road, the technology connectivity arm of the Belt and Road.

On Wednesday, Xi continued his visit, meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong.

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