China has always attached great importance to its relations with nations in Southeast Asia, as demonstrated most recently by two high-profile visits of President Xi Jinping to Viet Nam and Singapore on November 5-7. His mission was to deepen political and economic ties and strengthen relations between China and these important partners.
A Chinese technician shows how to use a state-of-the-art sewing machine at a textile exhibition held in the Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam on October 21 (XINHUA)
Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell
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Chinese government officials claimed Xi's trip resulted in wide-ranging agreements that will further improve bilateral relations with these two countries and promote regional prosperity as a whole.
Xi's state visit to Viet Nam coincided with the 65th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries. Based on the long-standing friendship between former Chinese and Vietnamese leaders--Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai and President Ho Chi Minh--the two countries have cultivated a kind of "comradely and brotherly" relationship throughout history.
In his contributing article published in Vietnamese newspaper Nhan Dan, (meaning the People) a few days before his plane touched down, Xi described his upcoming visit to Hanoi as "dropping by a neighbor's or visiting a brother."
When addressing representatives attending the 16th China-Viet Nam youth friendship meeting in Hanoi, held in conjunction with Xi's visit, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Viet Nam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong hailed the China-Viet Nam traditional friendship, calling on the younger generation to inherit the "comradely and brotherly" relationship.
As both are socialist countries, China and Viet Nam share a profound traditional friendship, said Pan Jin'e, a researcher on socialist country studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Pan said Xi's visit has consolidated the friendship and promoted a more pragmatic comprehensive strategic cooperation partnership.
China and Viet Nam have organized a series of activities to commemorate the 65th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties. Trong and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang respectfully visited China in April and September.
Though Xi's 27-hour stay in Hanoi was relatively brief, it was packed with meetings. The two sides also signed a series of agreements on inter-party cooperation.
As an important part of bilateral relations, economic cooperation was highlighted during Xi's latest visit. The two parties signed a number of cooperation documents covering such fields as transportation, tourism, culture, energy and finance. They have agreed to expand cooperation within the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and Viet Nam's Two Corridors and One Economic Circle plan.
China's aforementioned initiative is meant to strengthen cooperation in international trade and infrastructure projects, while the Vietnamese version was proposed by its leaders during a visit to China in May 2004, with an aim to strengthen economic links among 10 Chinese and Vietnamese provinces and municipalities. A joint study on the feasibility of a railway connecting Hanoi-Lao Cai-Hai Phong in north Viet Nam is the latest progress in the alignment of strategies.
Observers believe that the linking of the two initiatives will benefit both countries. Dong Manyuan, Vice President of China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), said the two development blueprints have the potential to create a closer connectivity of infrastructure and capacity cooperation, which is in the interests of both countries.
Moreover, Dong explained that since the infrastructure, industrial and manufacturing capacity of Viet Nam is relatively weak, participating in the Chinese initiative is helpful for the country to establish an integrated industrial system.
As for China, Dong said, Viet Nam is in a unique position in regards to the Chinese initiative as it lies at the intersection of the land and maritime Silk Road, so the successful cooperation with Viet Nam will serve as a model for China to advance the Belt and Road Initiative with other partners.
Pan noted that the alignment of the two initiatives will actually benefit Viet Nam the most, as it is very helpful for the Vietnamese to take advantage of China's funds, experience and resources to advance its infrastructure construction and then break the country's bottleneck for further development.
Viet Nam joined the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations as a member state. But observers note that fulfilling the TPP requirements is still a large hurdle for economies like Viet Nam.
Xu Liping, another researcher with the CASS on Southeast Asian studies, said Viet Nam still needs to undergo a long period of change before it can benefit from the TPP agreement. "A close economic cooperation with China is indispensable, and such cooperation will also help Viet Nam reform its economic system," said Xu.
Data from China's Ministry of Commerce shows that China has been Viet Nam's largest trading partner for 11 consecutive years, while Viet Nam became China's second-largest trading partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last year. Bilateral trade surpassed $90 billion last year and is expected to reach the target of $100 billion ahead of schedule. The two nations had planned years ago to lift bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2017.
Many observers have noted that the highly-anticipated goal created the impetus for cooperation and gave bilateral relations positive momentum. Given that their disputes over the sovereignty of some South China Sea islands have yet to be solved, the progress bears witness to the two neighbors' will and ability to properly manage their differences. During Xi's visit, China and Viet Nam agreed to launch a joint survey mission on the waters outside the mouth of the Beibu Gulf in December, which is seen as the start for further maritime cooperation between the two countries.
Partners all around
Xi immediately traveled to Singapore following his Viet Nam trip, arriving at the invitation of his Singaporean counterpart Tony Tan Keng Yam. The trip was focused on creating real-time, all-round cooperation between the economic partners. The trip marked the 25th anniversary of the establishment of China-Singapore diplomatic ties.
The two leaders announced at the conclusion of their meetings that they will launch negotiations on an upgrade of a seven-year-old free trade agreement, expand cooperation in economy, trade and investment, and actively explore modes of cooperation between the two countries' enterprises in a third market within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, as reported by Xinhua News Agency.
The leaders highlighted plans to build the third government-to-government (G2G) project in Chongqing, a sprawling metropolis in southwestern China. The previous two G2G projects include the Suzhou Industrial Park established in 1994 and Tianjin Eco-City inaugurated in 2008. Xinhua reported that the Chongqing project will have four main areas of collaboration--financial services, aviation, logistics, and information technology. Based on connectivity and services, Chongqing will be a high-level innovation zone utilizing the city's geographical position as a juncture of China's western regions and the Yangtze River economic belt.
Additionally, the two vowed for closer financial cooperation, including promoting the use of renminbi in bilateral trade and investment and working toward the early establishment and operation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
During his visit, Xi emphasized that frequent exchanges of high-level visits, the success of two existing G2G projects, and the proposed third project in Chongqing will all inject momentum into bilateral ties, as reported by Xinhua. Xi also called on the two sides to maintain the momentum of people-to-people exchanges, and expand cooperation in education and human resources to raise the level of cultural cooperation.
Dong of the CIIS said, as a predominantly ethnic Chinese society, Singapore shares cultural roots and maintains special relations with China. Xi's visit will lift bilateral ties to a new height, he believes.
Dong noted that China drew from the experience of Singapore in terms of business management and attraction of foreign capital, especially when China began to adopt the reform and opening-up policy more than three decades ago. Now, as Singapore is a leading member of ASEAN, it will again serve as an important partner of China's as the latter endeavors to promote the Belt and Road Initiative in the region. For Singapore, a city state, the Chinese initiative also presents huge opportunities.
China's ties with both Viet Nam and Singapore can be seen as a miniature version of China-ASEAN relations, according to Dong. The progress in the development of relations with Viet Nam and Singapore will serve as a model to strengthen China-ASEAN relations in the years to come.