US Democratic Leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) shakes hands with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (R) at the party's office in Hanoi March 31, 2015. Trong is visiting China next week ahead of a landmark US trip later this year. Photo: Reuters
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and other top leaders in Beijing in a four-day visit that begins April 7, the Vietnam Communist Party said on its website Wednesday.
Trong is calling on China in the context of Vietnam and the US seeing a rapid thaw in bilateral relations. He would become the first Vietnam's Party chief to visit the US at a yet-to-be-announced date this year.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese-Sino ties have remained rocky since May 2014.
On May 2, China's deployment of a giant oil rig into Vietnamese waters triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels from both countries.
China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties by exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits.
Tensions appeared to flare up again recently. Over the past months, Vietnam has repeatedly castigated China’s infamous reclamation work
that has been well advanced on several reefs in the Spratly Islands in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
But against that backdrop, Trong’s visit to Beijing "holds out the promise that bilateral relations could continue on their upward trajectory," Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told Thanh Nien News.
“Besides the South China Sea, China and Vietnam have strong interests in maintaining good economic relations,” he said.
“Vietnam will not be able to reduce its massive trade deficit but it can lobby for better terms for access for its goods to the China market, and Chinese investment in Vietnam, especially the infrastructure.”
Most recent figures from the Vietnam Customs showed that total China-Vietnam trade was worth $53.5 billion during the first 11 months of 2014, almost twice the $27 billion recorded in 2010.
In recent years, China has taken increasingly aggressive actions to assert sovereignty over large swaths of the East Sea. The oil rig crisis
last year has prompted the Vietnamese intelligentsia and retired officials to urge their government to rethink the relations with the giant northern neighbor.
It is in this context that Hanoi has sought to ramp up alliances with both the US and treaty ally Japan.
Vietnam and the US are scrambling to significantly boost their already growing trade. The US has repeatedly proclaimed its intention to become the number one investor in Vietnam. Many now expect the US-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to be signed this year.
“The TPP is being sold as a counter to China's domination and although the extent to which it will hurt China is unknown, the recent events have created an environment in which anything that hurts China is interpreted as being good,” said Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Analysts say because Trong is going to the US after his China visit, he will have some leverage in his dealings with Xi.
“If China pushes too hard or is not accommodating, Vietnam has the option of stepping up ties with the US,” Thayer said. “Conversely, if Xi is accommodating, Trong can use this leverage to bargain more with the US.”