HANOI, Vietnam—Vietnam is sending a senior Communist party official to China this week to try to rebuild relations badly bit by Beijing’s decision to deploy an oil rig in waters claimed by Hanoi in May.
The movement of the rig by China triggered a furious reaction in Hanoi and led to speculation the secretive government might be reconsidering its relationship with Beijing, perhaps favouring a tilt to the United States as otherSoutheast Asian nations locked in territorial disputes with China have.
But several analysts have said the government was split between those favouring a strategic shift to Washington and a faction believing that China, its ideological ally, giant neighbour and vital economic partner, can be accommodated despite Beijing’s stated claims on large parts of the South China Sea that Hanoi believes are its own.
Monday’s statement announcing the envoy’s visit on Tuesday and Wednesday was notably short of the angry rhetoric that Hanoi used during the crisis, which saw vessels from both nations sparring close to the rig before it was towed back to Chinese waters in July.
It said politburo member Le Hong Anh’s visit, at the invitation of China, was aimed at ensuring there won’t be a repeat of the oil rig incident and to “promote the healthy, stable and long-term development of relations between the two parties and states.” It reiterated its regret for deadly anti-Chinese riots that broke out during the crisis and pledged to ensure the safety of Chinese workers and companies in the country.
Le Hong Anh is ranked No. 5 in the politburo behind the party chief, the president, the prime minister and the chairman of the national assembly. He will be the highest-level official to have contact with China after Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi visited Hanoi in June, a trip that produced no result.
China refused to listen to Vietnamese complaints after it moved the rig, and pulled it out on its own terms.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is widespread in Vietnam, and is often tapped into by the country’s dissident movement, which criticizes the government for its allegedly subservient relationship to its Communist brethren next door.
Nguyen Trong Vinh, former Vietnamese ambassador to China and well-known for his hard line toward Beijing, was skeptical about the talks.
“There will be nothing,” he said “China will never compromise. Their removal of the oil rig was only temporary. They will never abandon their wicked ambitions of taking a monopoly over the East Sea,” using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
Nguyen Quang A, an economist who often speaks out against the government, said he welcomed the talks but was concerned Beijing might be trying to persuade Hanoi to drop its threat of taking international legal action against China’s territorial claims.