China seeks closer ties with Vietnam, Southeast Asian neighbours as tensions rise with US

Shi Jiangtao
·5-min read

Beijing has moved to mend fences with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian neighbours, seeking closer economic ties and offering coronavirus recovery aid, as tensions flare with Washington over the South China Sea.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to placate an increasingly hostile Hanoi on Tuesday in a virtual meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh. That was a day after Wang’s deputy, Luo Zhaohui, tried to reassure China’s neighbours that it wanted regional peace and stability.

Beijing also said it finalised talks on Monday for a free-trade pact with Cambodia, its closest ally in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a counterweight to Vietnam, the most vocal regional challenger of its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. While the pact is largely symbolic given their limited trade volume, analysts say it shows Beijing’s strategy of wooing countries away from the US with economic incentives.

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared last week that Beijing’s claims to nearly 90 per cent of the South China Sea were “completely unlawful”, a move that has inflamed tensions between the superpowers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said the US rejected Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea. Photo: AFP
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said the US rejected Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

“Facing the Covid-19 pandemic, Vietnam and China have strengthened our friendship to support each other,” Wang said during the meeting with Pham, citing a phone call between President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong six months ago.

“We have both successfully controlled the outbreak and we will continue to build up our economic and trade cooperation,” he said.

Pham, Vietnam’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, pledged to donate US$100,000, “as a token of our friendship”, to help China fight its worst floods in decades that have hit 27 provinces and affected over 38 million people. “I would like to extend our sincere empathy to China, which is fighting natural disasters,” he said.

Their meeting was expected to cover a wide range of topics, including the contentious maritime disputes, according to Xu Liping, an expert with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It occurs against the backdrop that relevant parties have intensified their wrangling as talks over the code of conduct in the South China Sea between China and [Asean] are entering a critical stage,” he said.

Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbours have been discussing the rule-setting document for years, which China hopes to finalise by 2021. But the talks have been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the countries remain deeply divided over how to clearly define their contested claims and how to settle future disputes.

With uncertainties over those talks, Vietnam was keen to use its position as this year’s Asean chair and the harder US line on the South China Sea to counter Beijing, according to Xu.

The communist neighbours have frequently vowed to set aside their territorial dispute and historical grievances, but their relations remain fraught over Hanoi’s pivot to Washington and their rival claims to the energy-rich waterway. Hanoi has accused Beijing of “bullying behaviour” in disputes at sea, including in April, when a Vietnamese fishing boat was allegedly rammed and sunk by a Chinese ship.

Luo, China’s deputy foreign minister, was more strident on Monday, lashing out at Washington’s stance on the South China Sea dispute and its navy sending two aircraft carriers through the region as proof of US President Donald Trump’s strategy to contain China.

“We believe the members of Asean will be able to see through America’s conspiracy of playing the South China Sea card, continue to adopt an independent approach on foreign policy, and work together with China to push for the early completion of the code of conduct negotiations,” he said in a meeting with representatives from Asean, Japan and South Korea, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.

Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, said Asean countries had been caught in the crossfire between China and the US.

“We are witnessing exacerbated tensions in the region and our priority now is how to manage the crisis and prevent dangerous military confrontations,” he said.

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