China and Vietnam Relations: From Millennial Turbulence to Modern-Day Incentives


China and Vietnam have been “in touch” geopolitically since well before many other of today’s nations were even close to being on the map, so let’s just say we can safely check the track record box. Furthermore, their shared border is almost in the 1,300 km zone and as such, there is most definitely enough skin in the game for the two entities to have a more than decent incentive of working well together. Not only that but in light of the socialist “pedigree” the two nations have in common, one has valid reasons to believe the political incentive is also there.

Yet despite these undeniable factors, let’s just say China and Vietnam have had a rather turbulent coexistence:

  1. As of the Warring States period over in China and the Thuc Dynasty in Vietnam, the two entities have been in contact in one way or another. As the title states, we are looking at a track record which spans not decades or centuries but downright millennia. Unfortunately for Vietnam, most of this track record revolves around Chinese domination and as such, it should come as no surprise that a fair share of bad blood exists. To complete the picture however, they do have elements in common with respect to shared suffering such as both being occupied by Imperial Japan during the Second World War
  2. Yes, China was a very important ally of the communist North Vietnam during its war with the capitalist South Vietnam (with China putting over 300,000 troops at North Vietnam’s disposal, not to mention arms and direct financial aid) but not even that period was what one might call a geopolitical love story, for reasons which range from North Vietnam’s unwillingness to allow China to exert too much influence over them to ideological competition for China from the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split. It should therefore come as no surprise that after absorbing South Vietnam, the relations between China and Vietnam deteriorated
  3. To this day, certain territorial disputes persist, for example the (in)famous disputes pertaining to the South China Sea (a topic we have covered through a dedicated article, click HERE to read more about South China Sea dynamics), with almost 6/7 of Vietnam’s population being worried about potential territorial dispute escalations according to Pew Research Center Data
  4. As unlikely as it may have seemed a few decades ago, a relatively new trend has emerged, one represented by Vietnam’s willingness to become closer and closer to the United States. For the first time in a decade, Vietnam has recently released a rather unambiguous defense white paper which makes the shift toward Washington crystal clear, replacing the tendency of “hedging” that Vietnam had up until this point, with the verbiage making it clear that increases in pressure from China when it comes to South China Sea disputes end up bringing Vietnam and the US closer and closer together
  5. The fact that, every now and then, a context emerges which revolves around Vietnam standing to gain when China is experiencing difficulties. The most recent example to that effect is represented by, you’ve guessed it, the infamous China – US trade tensions, with Vietnam being more than willing to step in economically and attract the capital that the US is trying to take away from China. To that effect, the fact that Vietnam’s economy was the #1 one in the Southeast Asia region in terms of growth rate last year can at least partially be attributed to China – US trade war variables, with notable examples of companies which have made it clear that Vietnam is on their radar including household names such as Samsung, Sharp, Dell or Nintendo

We will stop here so as to avoid turning this post into a novel. Suffice it to say that explanations for the let’s call it “hate” dimension of China and Vietnam’s love-hate relationship are not hard to come by. Yet despite this state of affairs, it is important to also pay attention to the “love” dimension because yes, one exists and it isn’t all that difficult to guess that it primarily revolves around the attractiveness of Chinese capital.

Just like other ASEAN member states, Vietnam is well aware of the fact that it is difficult to say no to Chinese initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative or AIIB, initiatives that have the potential of leading to infrastructure-oriented investments which are vital for a country such as Vietnam. Realistically speaking, it is difficult to the point of impossible to find an entity other than China which is interested in and capable of offering such “tangible” investments. Speculative hot money is easy to come by, whereas infrastructure-related investments… less so.

Furthermore, as attractive as the idea of Warming up to Washington may seem, the Vietnamese authorities are well aware of the fact that in light of Donald Trump’s now-famous “America First” paradigm, the United States is interested in extracting more money from its trading partners than in the past so as to even out what Washington considers to be an imbalance when it comes to trade. Therefore, even the previously mentioned defense white paper needs to be taken with a grain of salt, with the practicality associated with expecting exponentially large inflows from the US not exactly being there, even in a Sino-American trade war context… let us not even address scenarios which revolve around de-escalation between the two superpowers, at least on the trade front.

As such, despite the fact that the historical track record between the two (impressive as it may be with respect to length) paints a rather gloomy picture that leads to major trust issues in the present and despite modern-day challenges such as South China Sea-related disputes, there is enough counter-balance on the “love” scale to make it clear that some kind of a balance will most likely continue to be maintained as far as the millennial love-hate relationship between China and Vietnam is concerned.