China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up his latest trip to Southeast Asia on Saturday, during which he sought to stabilise relations in the region ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president. But of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Wang has visited in recent months, one was conspicuously missing: Vietnam.
It is hardly a coincidence, according to diplomatic observers, as China has moved Asean up in its foreign policy priorities in recent months in the midst of its spiralling geopolitical rivalry with the US, Europe and America's allies and partners in Asia-Pacific.
Observers say Wang skipping Vietnam lays bare the growing antagonism and tensions between the old Communist allies over their South China Sea dispute, which have been compounded by the US factor and uncertainties over internal power politics in Hanoi.
While Asean overtook the European Union as China's top trading partner last year, Vietnam replaced Germany as China's sixth-largest trading partner, thanks to the surging two-way trade between Beijing and Hanoi despite strained political ties and the coronavirus pandemic.
However, according to Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou, Vietnam was the first Asean nation to move to reject Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies and close its China border in the wake of the pandemic.
Also, unlike many Asean countries that have shown enthusiasm for Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines, which have been a main feature of Wang's regional diplomacy, Vietnam has adopted a more diversified strategy in its negotiations of buying products from Britain, the US, Russia and China.
Apart from Vietnam's grievances over China's perceived bullying in the maritime dispute and the soaring anti-Chinese sentiments, the biggest variable in bilateral ties is the upcoming leadership transition in one of the world's most secretive political systems.
The 13th national congress of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party to be held later this month will decide the country's new leadership and how it will steer through the fast changing regional geopolitics.
"The uncertainty of five-yearly leadership transition has thrown the already murky political situation in Vietnam into further doubt, posing unprecedented challenges to other countries in the region including China," Zhang said.
While China needed to manage ties with Vietnam, it had to tread carefully to avoid getting caught in Vietnam's domestic political struggle, as various factions might want to play the China card in their intensified jostling behind the scenes, he said.
Despite close economic and trade ties, there have been few top-level exchanges between China and Vietnam in recent months, especially person-to-person meetings between government and party leaders, which have traditionally played a pivotal role in steadying ties.
"I am not optimistic about bilateral ties because they will be shrouded in greater uncertainty amid policy debates over how Vietnam would position itself in the US-China rivalry. Vietnam's relations with China would largely be decided by its stance on the new US administration," Zhang said.
Xu Liping, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also attributed the lack of high-level meetings to Vietnam's domestic uncertainties.
"There are indeed some gaps between our expectations for bilateral ties and the reality. But I still think both sides are likely to resume some sort of communications at top level after the leadership transition," he said.
As the only Southeast Asian nation to take on China both over the South China Sea and management of the Mekong River, Vietnam has become a focal point in the US-China wrangling.
Washington has tried hard in recent months to pull China's communist neighbour closer to its orbit, with senior officials, including US national security adviser Robert O'Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, making separate trips to Hanoi.
According to Xu, while it is understandable for Vietnam to count on the US and other regional powers, such as India and Japan, to counterbalance China in the South China Sea, it should be careful to manage its expectations of external interference.
"Vietnam has become increasingly confident in recent years in forging closer ties with major powers around the world and its geopolitical significance has been widely acknowledged. But it may need to refrain from asking for too much from China in the maritime dispute because countries outside the region may not be able to contain China after all," he said.
Zhang said Beijing should also be wary of the incoming Biden administration, which looked set to boost economic and security ties with Hanoi in its multilateral approach to curbing China.
"The risk of confrontation is rising," he said. "Wang Yi has reiterated the importance of regional stability throughout his Southeast Asian tours, which shows Beijing clearly understands it faces growing challenges to prevent relations with its neighbours from further deteriorating."
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