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China warns Vietnam to watch out for outside interference in South China Sea

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Chinese foreign minister’s remarks follow call from US vice-president for Southeast Asian countries to resist Beijing’s ‘bullying’ in disputed waters. Vietnam is likely to continue its pragmatic balancing act between the two powers, and remain a reliable partner to all, say analysts.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned of interference from regional outsiders, as he urged Vietnam not to “magnify conflicts” in the disputed South China Sea.

Wang’s remarks, made during talks with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi on Friday, came around two weeks after visiting US Vice-President Kamala Harris called on Vietnam to join the US in challenging China’s “bullying”.

“We should treasure the hard-won peace and stability in the South China Sea and place maritime-related problems in a suitable position. [We should] not complicate the conditions, [or] magnify conflicts through unilateral moves, and should both be alert in resisting interference and incitement from regional outsiders,” Wang said, according to an official statement.

“[We should] send a positive message to the international community that the people of China and Vietnam have the wisdom to manage conflicts, and further expand areas of cooperation”.

According to Hanoi’s readout, both sides agreed to “effectively control divergence” on the South China Sea. They also raised the issue of trade imbalance and expressed concerns about border trade difficulties related to customs clearing.

Wang announced an additional 3 million Chinese vaccine doses for Vietnam by the end of the year, bringing the total doses promised to 5.7 million.

China’s renewed commitments to Vietnam come against the backdrop of Washington’s attempts to strengthen US ties in the Indo-Pacific region as it aims to counter China’s growing military and economic influence there.

The South China Sea has become one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the US, with Washington becoming more assertive in challenging Beijing’s expansive claims in the resource-rich waters, where China has faced increased tensions in the past months with other claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Harris attacked on China’s behaviour in the disputed waters during her visit to Vietnam and Singapore in late August, urging Hanoi to challenge what she described as Beijing’s “bullying” in the South China Sea.

She also pledged Washington’s help in boosting Vietnam’s maritime security by offering more visits by US warships, asked for an upgrade of bilateral relations, and announced 1 million additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine for Vietnam, bringing the total US vaccine donation to the country to 6 million doses.

Beijing hit back at Harris’ saccusations, saying Washington was the “black hand” behind the tensions in the disputed waters.

Hanoi has attempted a balancing act between the two powers, assuring the Chinese ambassador ahead of Harris’ visit that it would not ally with one country to fight another.

Pham Quang Minh, former dean of the University for Social Science and Humanities in Hanoi, believes the timing of Wang Yi’s arrival in Vietnam is related to Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s trip to the US next week for the United Nations General Assembly, with a state visit to Washington also on the cards.

“Foreign Minister Wang Yi wants to send a message to Vietnamese leaders that China is a very close partner of Vietnam”, Pham Quang Minh said. “Vietnam should not lean towards the US, and should not upgrade its relationship to a strategic partnership with the US. Only China is Vietnam’s true partner.”

He also sees Beijing’s donation of vaccines as carrying a “political purpose”, as China knows that Vietnam is “very thirsty for vaccines”.

However, he noted that “Vietnam still maintains a sober and pragmatic attitude in its relations with China.”

“On the one hand, Vietnam will strengthen cooperation with the US and China, but on the other, Vietnam will also promote cooperation with its partners and the Asean to maintain its sovereignty.”

Carl Thayer, professor emeritus of politics at the University of New South Wales, said Wang’s visit to Hanoi was significant because, “for the past two years, he has left Vietnam off his itinerary when travelling to Southeast Asia”.

Wang did not visit Vietnam on his last two Southeast Asian tours, in January and last October, but has met his Vietnamese counterparts on other occasions.

Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia, said Wang’s visit shows Vietnam’s foreign policy of being a “reliable partner” to all was working well.

“No doubt Wang Yi will receive the same message Vietnam’s leaders conveyed to Vice-President Harris: Vietnam will follow a foreign policy of ‘independence, self-reliance, and diversification and multilateralisation of relations’.”

Wang arrived in Vietnam on Friday for a three-day visit, as part of his second tour to Southeast Asia this year. He will next travel to Cambodia and Singapore, before a last stop in South Korea.

By Kinling Lo  & Bac Pham – The South China Morning Post – September 11, 2021

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