Background Briefing: China-Vietnam Relations: Visits by Vietnam’s Defence Minister and Prime Minister, by Carlyle A. Thayer, 31 August, 2016.

The original document, which is reproduced below, can also be downloaded in pdf format by clicking onto Thayer High-Level Visits Vietnam to China.

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Question 1. Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will visit China in mid-September not long after Vietnam’s Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich’s visit to China this week. We request your assessment of these issues.

According to our records Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung did not officially visit Beijing during his ten years in office, but Phuc’s visit to China comes right at the start of his term. Some sources claim that Phuc’s visit was hasty. Do you think Phuc wants to advance good relations with Beijing? Can Phuc successfully contain China’s actions in the South China Sea? If so, how will this impact on Vietnam-United States relations?

Do you think there will be a marked improvement in Sino-Vietnamese relations as a result of Phuc’s visit. Does this mean that Vietnam will not take legal action against China in the South China Sea (East Sea)?

Q1 ANSWER: Under Vietnam’s system of collective leadership under Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, ideological orthodoxy and maintaining relations with “socialist China” are now at centre state.

Vietnam can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst in its relations with the United States. President Obama has made his visit and nothing will change in his final months in office. No matter who is president of the United States, it seems certain the TPP will fail.

Russia is cooperating with China on a number of issues because they share a convergence of interests in undermining the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific.

Neither Japan or India are strong enough to confront China. Therefore, Vietnam has little option but to try to seek reassurance from Bejing that there will not be any “surprises” in their relations. Prime Minister Phuc will certainly lobby Chia to restrain itself in the South China Sea, particularly on issues of concern to Vietnam. China will only give these assurances if Vietnam does not play up the South China Sea issues.

Question 2. Do you think there will be a breakthrough in relations between China and Vietnam? If so, how will this impact on Vietnam-United States relations?

Q2 ANSWER: Vietnam’s relations with the United States will not be adversely affected if Vietnam also improves its relations with China. After all, under Vietnam’s policy of “three no’s” Vietnam will not ally with China to oppose the US or ally with the US to oppose China.

Relations between Hanoi and Washington are on a slow upward trajectory. Vietnam sets the pace. There is unlikely to be a breakthrough between now and the US elections and the inauguration of a new president in January 2017. The direction in relations was set by Obama’s visit to Vietnam. Whoever takes office in the new Administration will take at least 100 days to review all aspects of US policy before commencing on any initiatives. The new Administration will be focused on China, Russia, ISIL and the Middle East.

Question 3. What will be the state of Vietnam-China relations after Phuc’s visit? Do you agree that Vietnam will not bring China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) as many Vietnamese people expect?

Q3 ANSWER: [NOTE: The PCA only served as the registry for legal proceedings initiated by the Philippines against China. The legal proceedings were conducted by the Arbitral Tribunal set up under Annex VII of UNCLOS not the PCA.]

China will be very direct with Prime Minister Phuc that both sides should conduct “friendly negotiations”. China will tell Vietnam that it does not recognize the decision by the Arbitral Tribunal and that bilateral relations will suffer if Vietnam takes legal action. The main focus of China’s attention in coming months will be the Philippines not Vietnam. As China and ASEAN will hold a commemorative summit to mark 25 years of dialogue relations, China is unlikely to instigate a crisis with Vietnam or any other South China Sea claimant state.

Question 4. President Xi Jinping did not meet Vietnam’s Defence Minister. All Vietnamese defence ministers have met the Chinese president during previous visits. Why?

Q4 ANSWER: At this stage I can only speculate that Vietnam’s stance on the South China Sea, while conciliatory, still remains an irritant in bilateral relations. Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich’s emphasis on the peaceful settlement of disputes on the basis of “equality and respect for each other and international law” is an illustration of Vietnam’s principled stance. Also, Vietnam is set to receive India’s Prime Minister Modi on 3 September.

The two sides are likely to issue a joint statement that indicates agreement on South China Sea issues as well as announce a step up in defence cooperation. Reportedly the two sides will announce Vietnam’s decision on the $100 million line of credit offered by Modi earlier for the construction of four ocean patrol vessels. Modi is also likely to announce an increase in Vietnamese defence personnel attending courses in India.

  • By Carlyle A. Thayer, “China-Vietnam Relations: Visits by Vietnam’s Defence Minister and Prime Minister,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 31, 2016. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.



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