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In Vietnam, a 'shared destiny' and the US are likely to be high on Xi Jinping's agenda

China will try to boost political trust and economic cooperation with Vietnam when President Xi Jinping visits the communist-ruled neighbour this week.

Both Beijing and Hanoi have confirmed Xi's state visit to Vietnam. His wife Peng Liyuan will accompany him on the two-day trip from Tuesday, the Vietnamese communist party said in a statement.

Observers say Beijing is seeking closer ties with Vietnam and hopes to sell the idea of a "community of a common destiny".

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There is growing unease in Beijing after Vietnam upgraded ties with the United States and Japan to the same level as those with China. But Hanoi - a beneficiary in the Cold War-style confrontation between the US and China - is likely to continue its hedging strategy, according to observers. They expect Vietnam to look for more economic cooperation with China while inching closer to the US to counter Beijing in their maritime disputes.

"China and Vietnam have mixed attitudes towards each other," said a researcher from the government-linked Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"While they need each other politically [to maintain stability at home], their widening differences on security-related issues, especially over the South China Sea disputes, remain the key obstacle."

Xi's visit also has regional significance, coming soon after his summit with US President Joe Biden in San Francisco last month, when the two leaders agreed to stabilise ties.

Despite that, the researcher said, "it remains difficult for the two sides to get the situation in the Indo-Pacific fully under control, as the US is determined to contain China".

In Hanoi, Xi is expected to meet Vietnam's top leaders and discuss an upgrade to bilateral relations, the Chinese foreign ministry said. They will also discuss political security, maritime and multilateral issues, as well as deepening strategic and practical cooperation, ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday.

"The world is in a new period of disorder and transformation, with increasing instability and uncertainties," he said. "China and Vietnam are both socialist countries ... greater solidarity, closer friendship and deeper mutually beneficial cooperation is in the common interests of both sides and conducive to peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the wider world."

Xi's visit follows trips to Beijing by Vietnam's Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong last year and President Vo Van Thuong in October. Trong was the first foreign leader to meet Xi in Beijing after the Chinese leader secured a precedent-breaking third term. Xi and Trong - who had himself secured a third term as party chief in 2021 - pledged to take their "comrades and brothers" relationship to a new level.

Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow with the Vietnam studies programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Xi's trip underscored the importance of Vietnam in China's foreign policy and also reflected Beijing's concern over Hanoi's recent diplomatic upgrades with the US and Japan.

"Xi will seek reassurance from the Vietnamese leadership regarding its commitment to Beijing and assurance of not aligning with forces against China," he said.

"Moreover, Beijing might aim to draw Vietnam closer into its sphere of influence, particularly through recent initiatives like the 'community of common destiny' and the Global Security/Development Initiatives."

But he did not expect any significant upgrade in China-Vietnam ties that were "already at a peak".

When Biden visited Hanoi in September, the two sides agreed to elevate ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" - the highest level in Vietnam's diplomatic hierarchy, putting the US on par with China, Russia, India and South Korea.

Vietnam also upgraded its relations with Japan to that level last month, when Thuong visited Tokyo.

According to Zhang Mingliang, a regional affairs specialist at Jinan University in Guangzhou, Xi's trip suggests Beijing feels the need to shore up ties with its neighbour.

"The visit is also in line with the tradition of top-level exchanges between the two socialist countries since the normalisation of their ties [in 1991]," he said, noting that Vietnam's prime minister and other senior officials had visited China this year.

Zhang said Beijing also tended to view ties with rival South China Sea claimants - particularly Vietnam and the Philippines - as part of its US strategy.

"For China, they are part of the issue with the US instead of purely bilateral relations with Southeast Asian nations," he said. "China will gauge the American influence on Vietnam and others and see how it could put itself in a more favourable position - or rather how to avoid being in a more disadvantageous position."

China sees Vietnam not just as its largest trading partner in Southeast Asia but as a gateway to the region, according to Le Hong Hiep, coordinator of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's Vietnam studies programme.

"Beijing's primary goal is to ensure that Hanoi does not stray too far from their orbit towards the US camp," Le said.

"Meanwhile, despite the historical distrust and ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, Vietnam recognises the importance of working with China. Even the most hardline anti-China nationalists in Vietnam cannot deny the significant role that China plays in the country's security and prosperity."

He said Xi's visit could potentially see a declaration on a "community of shared destiny" between the two nations.

Beijing has been pushing the idea since at least 2015, including on December 1 when Foreign Minister Wang Yi - in meetings with Trong, Thuong and his counterpart Bui Thanh Son in Hanoi - said the two socialist countries "share the same aspiration and destiny".

They also discussed a long-delayed upgrade to a railway linking Kunming in China's southwestern Yunnan province to Vietnam's northern port city of Haiphong.

While Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pressed the issue last month, Chinese experts say Hanoi is sceptical about the project and Beijing's expanding economic and geopolitical influence.

"The Vietnamese side is not very willing," the CASS researcher said. "Vietnam has over the past decade adopted a policy of diversification in foreign investment, trying to cut its reliance on China and avoid being too closely tied to China's economic agenda. Like many others, they tend to view economic issues through the lens of security too."

The researcher also said that while several other Southeast Asian nations had accepted China's "shared destiny" idea, "Vietnam seems to still have difficulties fully embracing it", noting the two countries' long-standing territorial disputes.

Zhang pointed out that while Beijing is concerned about Hanoi's tilt towards Washington, Vietnam is also sensitive about China's response.

Vietnam's Communist Party chief has sought to reassure Beijing in meetings with Chinese officials in recent months. And in August, ahead of Biden's visit, Trong used a rare trip to the China-Vietnam border to send the message that Hanoi "gives top priority to building and developing its good relations with the Chinese party, state and people".

"Vietnam is concerned about possible misunderstanding, dissatisfaction and even punishment from the Chinese side over its warming ties with the US and Japan," Zhang said.

But he said Vietnam also had an opportunity and stood to gain from the US-China feud given its importance to both countries.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a Southeast Asia specialist, said given perceived Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea in recent months, Vietnam would welcome more US maritime security assistance.

"Vietnam will continue to steer a middle course in its relations with China and the US and will not abandon its long-standing defence policy of 'four noes'," he said, referring to no alliances, no foreign military bases, no joining one country against a third country, and no use of force in international relations.

Giang also said that while Vietnam's foreign policy prioritised China, its aim with Beijing was to secure political and security guarantees, as well as economic cooperation, rather than becoming too closely aligned.

"Similarly, being a one-party communist state like China, Vietnam is also wary of the West and seeks to maintain Beijing as a counterbalance against any potential threats to regime survival. This represents a delicate hedging act by the Vietnamese state," he said, adding that Xi's visit was unlikely to significantly alter the direction of Hanoi's foreign policy.

"Vietnam is aware of its current geopolitical advantage and is unlikely to sacrifice it for substantial Belt and Road Initiative investments or political support from Beijing."

Le agreed that Vietnam would continue its balancing act between China and the US, though it would become harder to maintain.

"But as long as China is not overly aggressive in the South China Sea, Vietnam will try its best to be on good terms with China and maintain an equidistance between the two great powers," he said.

Additional reporting Laura Zhou

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.