China-Vietnam Relations and Balancing: Lessons for Bangladesh

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Vietnam sits in a unique position in the complex geopolitical rivalry in Southeast Asia. China is the largest and most powerful neighbor of Vietnam in the region. Both countries share a long history of bilateral relations marked by cooperation and collaboration, as well as, tumult and hostility at the same time. But the rise of China and the US’s geostrategic shift towards the Indo-Pacific have put Vietnam in a difficult position to balance between these two giants. Over the years, Vietnam has proved successful in its balanced approach to maximizing its benefits without antagonizing any of its big partners. In South Asia, Bangladesh is also facing a similar kind of situation due to its geostrategic location and growing economy. Although China does not share any border, it has major interests in Bangladesh. Along with China, other powerful states like the US and India are also trying to strengthen their relations with Bangladesh to secure geo-strategic advantages which already put Bangladesh in a tricky situation to deal with. In this context, Vietnam can be a good example for Bangladesh to navigate through a fierce geopolitical rivalry and especially dealing with China while maximizing its interests.

China-Vietnam Relations and the “Balanced Approach”

Vietnam is located in the Indochina Peninsula which shares a 1,281 kilometers border with China. The two nations have long-standing ties that date back millennia and are marked by both pleasant and painful memories. China was the first country to recognize the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1950 and established their formal diplomatic relations under the principles of “friendly Sino-Vietnam relations for peace, stability, and prosperity.” However, both countries experienced no shortage of challenges over the seven decades of their diplomatic relations. They fought wars both on the land border in 1979 and on the high seas in 1988 which were serious blows to their relations. Even so, Hanoi and Beijing normalized their relations in 1991 as tensions died down with a goal of maintaining a friendly tie which reflects in its foreign policy principles.

The main foreign policy goal of Vietnam is to protect its national interest with three major objectives which are promoting economic development, ensuring national security, and maintaining a peaceful and favorable international environment. In order to achieve those objectives, Vietnam has adopted the policy of “diversification and multilateralization of foreign relations” with an aim to become a friend of every country in the international community. Moreover, it devised two new concepts which are “partners of cooperation” and “objects of struggle” in foreign relations in its eighth plenum back in 2003 to rationalize its policy of cooperation with every country. Simply, by introducing these two concepts, Vietnam accepted the reality that relations with any country generally contain both issues of agreement and disagreement. From this, we can determine the Vietnamese preference for a balanced foreign policy approach toward other countries, which is clearly evident in its dealing with powerful states nowadays, especially China.

For Vietnam, it has never been an easy task to maintain its sovereignty and political autonomy, while fostering a peaceful and beneficial relationship with its neighbor China. With the rise of China and its assertive foreign policy, it has become more complex. Hanoi does not want to go through another period of hostility with China, but at the same time, it also does not want to entirely subordinate itself to Chinese influence. For that reason, Vietnam pursues a policy of both cooperation and struggle while maintaining balanced diplomatic relations with China.

On cooperation, Vietnam and China share converging interests in economic, infrastructural, and governance sectors. In 2008, both countries established a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” which broaden the scope of their bilateral cooperation. Not surprisingly, Vietnam is the top trading partner of China in ASEAN as the bilateral trade reached $165 billion in 2021. Moreover, about a fifth of Vietnamese export went to China, whereas a third of Vietnamese imports came from China which is crucial to Vietnam’s manufacturing supply chain. Besides that, China has heavily invested in Vietnam with 2,862 projects worth around $16.3 billion. Ideological similarities were crucial in the normalization process in 1991 and it still plays important role in harmonizing the governance process between the countries which ultimately led to greater cooperation between them.

However, on the struggling aspect, the most concerning issue has been the maritime boundary dispute in the South China Sea where both countries have overlapping claims. Moreover, the Chinese push for influence in Cambodia and Laos is also alarming for Vietnam. In addition, the construction of hydroelectric dams by China on the upper mainstream of the Mekong River has created dents in their bilateral relations. Nonetheless, growing anti-China sentiments among Vietnamese people (75 percent of Vietnamese people hold an unfavorable view of China, according to Pew Research surveys) and tacit support for the US growing engagement in the region (52.6 percent of Vietnamese have a favorable view of the US growing security role, according to Yusof-Ishak Institute surveys) are also very much puzzling. In light of all this, considering Chinese indispensability for Vietnamese economic development, while accepting the struggling aspects of the relationship, Vietnam has taken a balanced diplomatic approach toward China in the spirit of its “cooperation while struggling”.

So far, the Vietnamese way of dealing with China and other powerful states through a balanced diplomatic approach has been quite successful. It is evident when the Vice President of the US, the Defense Minister of Japan, and the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister visited Vietnam in the same year. Moreover, the visits of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong to both China and the US last year testify to the country’s balanced foreign policy approach. With this, Vietnam is assuaging all these countries and reaping benefits in every sector. For example, during the visit of Xi Jinping to Vietnam in 2017, both countries signed 19 cooperative agreements. Whereas, the US promised to help Vietnam in developing a maritime defense system during the visit of the US Vice President to Vietnam in 2021.

As part of its balanced approach, Vietnam is also trying to reduce its dependency on the Chinese economy by intensifying its bilateral trade with the US and other countries. Not surprisingly, bilateral trade with the US has increased 200-fold since 1995, while investment has reached $2.8 billion as of 2021. Most importantly, the trade surplus that Vietnam enjoys in its trade with the US compensates for the trade deficit Vietnam has with China. Moreover, Vietnam has also sunned overreliance on any major powers for its defense and security. As a result, the country has decreased its arms dependency ratio on Russia from 94% in 2013 to below 60% in 2021. Cleverly, it has also enhanced its defensive capabilities by developing a global network of strategic partnerships. However, the US is not a strategic partner of Vietnam, which reflects Vietnam’s careful diplomatic maneuver considering Chinese strategic anxiety with regard to the strengthening of Vietnam-US ties.

Moreover, despite all the disagreements with China, Vietnam has always maintained a clear line of diplomatic communication. Recently, both countries established a direct phone line for handling emergencies in the South China Sea. Furthermore, Vietnam’s continuous good gestures like warningly receiving Chinese delegates and high-level visits to China are keeping things under control. Most importantly, since the Cold war period, Vietnam has taken a multidirectional foreign policy to maintain good relations with every country which is rooted in “four no’s”: no foreign soldiers on Vietnamese land, no allying with one nation against another, no military alliances with foreign countries, and no use of force or threat of use of force in international relations are permitted. These help Vietnam to maintain a truly balanced foreign policy with China and other states which can be great lessons for others.

Lessons for Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a South Asian country with great prospects to become a regional leader and a global actor. Over the last few decades, Bangladesh has experienced a growing significance in world politics due to its geostrategic location, resources, manpower, and booming economy. As a result, similar to Vietnam, Bangladesh has become very lucrative for powerful states like China, India, and the US. Although China does not share its border with Bangladesh, a growing Chinese presence is noticeable in Bangladesh. China wants to enhance its access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean through Bangladesh. On the other hand, India is a neighbor of Bangladesh and shares deep historical ties with Bangladesh. Bangladesh is crucial for India to connect its Northeast province with mainland India, as well as, counter Chinese growing presence in the region. Nonetheless, the US is also interested in Bangladesh to fulfill Indo-Pacific Strategy and countering the rise of China as a global power.

These cross-cutting geopolitical interests of powerful states have already put Bangladesh in a difficult position. For example, Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jimming warned Bangladesh against joining the Quad and said that it might substantially damage bilateral relations between Bangladesh and China. Moreover, similar to Vietnam, China has been the number one trading partner of Bangladesh, and the bilateral trade volume exceeded $25 billion in 2021. In terms of FDI flow to Bangladesh, China has also topped the list with $940 million in the last fiscal year.

Since independence, Bangladesh has been maintaining a peaceful and non-aligned foreign policy stance based on its “friendship to all, malice toward none”. Bangladesh, alike Vietnam, follows a vernacular approach of ‘strategic balancing’ to navigate great power politics. In this context, we can highlight some important lessons from the Vietnamese balanced diplomatic approach which might help Bangladesh overcome the problems of managing its relations with an assertive China and other major powers without upsetting any of them. Such as, reducing overdependence on any major powers for economic development; developing of own capability in the security sector; building relations with small and great powers alike without discrimination; keep the issue of cooperation and struggle separate, so that struggling issues will not hamper the cooperation; not to join any military alliance; no use of force to solve disputes rather than diplomatic and legal means; advocate for multilateralism and a peaceful international environment.

In the conclusion, there is no doubt, Vietnam has been quite successful in maintaining its diplomatic ties with China and other powers in this intensified geopolitical rivalry by pursuing a balanced diplomatic approach. Bangladesh is also facing a similar kind of situation and Vietnam can be a great case study for the country to continue its warm relations with China, as well as, other countries. Conversely, Vietnam can also follow the Bangladesh model in managing and resolving disputes related to maritime and territorial boundaries through dialogues and legal mechanisms.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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