June 13, 2024

Chinese leader Xi Jinping makes a trip to Vietnam this week, visiting the Southeast Asian country’s capital of Hanoi starting Tuesday (Dec. 12).

Already, Chinese state media are hailing the visit—Xi’s first journey next door in six years—as presaging “a new chapter in China-Vietnam relations” (link in Chinese). Quoting a phrase that Vietnam’s founding leader, Ho Chi Minh, used to describe bilateral relations, state broadcaster CCTV dubbed Beijing and Hanoi “both comrades and brothers” (link in Chinese).

Upgraded railway links, closer relations?

China and Vietnam are expected to upgrade railway links and other infrastructure, Reuters reports. The rail route being considered would pass through Vietnam’s rare earth metals heartland in the north.

According to Reuters, Vietnamese state paper Tuoi Tre cited the Chinese ambassador to Vietnam as indicating that Beijing is ready to offer Hanoi grants to boost railway connections between Kunming in China’s southern Yunnan province and Haiphong, the strategically located Vietnamese port city. The ambassador reportedly said that China is willing to provide “non-refundable aid” for the projects.

China’s overtures come just weeks after US president Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam in September. That trip yielded an upgrade to Washington-Hanoi relations, widely regarded a hedge by both sides against China.

Beijing is showing that it’s well aware of these calculations. A day after Biden’s Vietnam trip, Chinese state media wrote (link in Chinese): “The United States needs to win over Vietnam to contain China, and Vietnam knows this very well.”

Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, was less circumspect. “For Vietnam, the choice is actually not difficult to make,” he wrote. The US might offer Vietnam “one full meal,” but China can offer it “many full meals.”

As for Beijing, the task at hand is clear: using carrots—and sticks, if necessary—to convince Vietnam not to “join the patchworked anti-China alliance of the United States,” as state media put it.

Vietnam’s balancing act

Vietnam’s job is to thread the needle, staying in the good graces of both the US and China while maintaining sovereignty over its own affairs.

It’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Singapore, for example, is famously adept at navigating its geopolitical love triangle with Beijing and Washington.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how any Vietnam-China railway connection upgrade will pan out, if at all. Discussions on the project have dragged on for years, with little actual ground broken. One hurdle is different railway gauges: China uses a “standard gauge” of 1.435 meters, while Vietnam mostly uses a one-meter gauge, hindering cross-border transport because the two systems aren’t easily compatible.

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