Tensions with China Pushing Vietnam Toward Closer Ties with the U.S.

In a race to open up markets for Chinese companies, Beijing is offering its regional neighbors tens of billions of dollars in loans and investments.

The average Vietnamese, however, would rather tell China to stick it.

A tense history between the two nations along with Vietnam’s discontent at China’s shady business practices and territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea is hampering Beijing’s efforts.

Somewhere on the streets of Hanoi rests the pieces of a Chinese-built urban rail project that is three years behind schedule and 57 percent over budget. Several accidents such as scaffolding collapses have also claimed lives.

Vietnam’s transport minister also complained about the terms of the project’s loan limiting him to buying only Chinese-built trains.

“Chinese contractors are very bad,” Minister Dinh La Thang said. “I wanted to replace them many times, but I could not because of the loan agreement’s obligations.”

Lives have also been lost in riots in which Chinese and Taiwanese factories in Vietnam were attacked.

Beijing also enraged Hanoi in May 2014 when it placed a $1 billion oil rig on the South China Sea waters, which Vietnam claims as part of its exclusive economic zone.

“The oil rig incident was a shock to Vietnam,” said one Vietnamese official who spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity. “Mutual trust has not really recovered.”

China eventually removed the oil rig a month ahead of schedule in July 2014.

Tensions still pierced through when President Xi Jinping was granted a special invitation to speak before Vietnam’s National Assembly. Xi’s brotherly exhortations were met with silence and anger could be seen on some of the faces in his audience.

Discontent with Beijing has even pushed Vietnam toward an old foe: The United States.

In recent years, the U.S. has aided Vietnam’s coast guard forces to boost Hanoi’s strength against China’s militaristic ambitions in the region. In the last 12 months, eight out of 16 of Vietnam’s Politburo members have visited Washington D.C., and six U.S. Cabinet officials have visited Vietnam.

Obama is expected to make another trip to Vietnam next year.

Vietnam’s Communist Party has a pro-China faction, but mutual understanding between the U.S. and Vietnam continues to grow.

Pew Research indicates that 78 percent of Vietnamese citizens have a favorable view of the U.S., while only 19 percent share the same sentiment toward China.

Vietnam is also a party to the U.S.’s massively important Trans-Pacific-Partnership deal. China is not.

Nonetheless, Vietnam still needs infrastructure to grow its economy and it won’t deny all of Beijing’s investment offers. It’ll just examine each with a very close eye.

“The party has to take into account public opinion,” said Truong Thuy, an expert at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. “No one wants to appear soft in protecting Vietnam’s national interest or appear too accommodating towards China.”

 

 

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