China's Southeast Asia Strategy in Focus at Xi Vietnam Stop
Plus ASEAN-Japan summit; Southeast Asia at COP28; Thailand's Indo-Pacific link project; Vietnam's investment prospects and much, much more.
Greetings to new readers and welcome all to this edition of the weekly ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this iteration, we are looking at:
Assessing the outlook for China-Vietnam relations after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam and the wider significance of the trip (Note to Readers: ASEAN Wonk was in Vietnam right after the Xi visit for a couple of separate projects as part of a prearranged mainland Southeast Asia trip mentioned last week. As usual, we will include snapshots of shareable findings where they tie in with developments in addition to our coverage).
Mapping of regional developments including the ASEAN-Japan commemorative summit; Southeast Asia at COP28 and more;
Charting evolving trends such as on Thailand’s Indo-Pacific link initiative; documented migrant worker abuse and Cambodia’s growth trajectory;
Tracking and analysis of industry developments including the new digital player on the block; a cross-border EV hiccup and more;
And much more!
WonkCount: 1,654 words (~8 minutes reading time)
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ASEAN-Japan Summit; Southeast Asia and COP28 & More
China's Southeast Asia Strategy in Focus at Xi Vietnam Stop
What’s Behind It
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam on December 12-13. As previously noted on ASEAN Wonk, though a summit meeting had been the subject of discussion for months, amid other upgrades including that with the United States, the past few weeks saw a flurry of high-level exchanges and the subsequent confirmation of leader-level engagement. Xi’s visit finally took place from December 12-13, and the two sides issued a joint statement on December 13 as well1.
The much-anticipated visit came amid a series of upgrades in Vietnam’s relationships as it continues to balance managing its ties with China and diversifying its ties amid Beijing’s growing assertiveness. China has always had a unique status within Vietnam’s partnerships, by virtue of its combination of historic and cultural links — including a millennium of occupation — geographic proximity, geostrategic weight and party links. Though Vietnam sees challenges in China’s growing assertiveness from the Mekong to the South China Sea, the management of these challenges is carefully calibrated by the Communist Party of Vietnam and weighed alongside opportunities along with Vietnam’s other relationships which have their own challenges too. This balance has been in focus in 2023. In September, Vietnam finalized a double upgrade in ties with the United States, which was the biggest change in its partnership hierarchy and came alongside Hanoi’s signaling of other planned upgrades. This was followed by an upgrade with Japan in November ahead of Xi’s December visit.
Select Recent Developments in Vietnam’s Key Partnerships
Why It Matters
The meeting allows Vietnam to showcase stabilization in its ties with China, even as it diversifies its relationships. Though both sides differed in how they communicated it, Vietnam nonetheless moved closer towards accepting China’s language on a community with a shared future which Beijing has promoted across Southeast Asia with varying degrees of success2. Unsurprisingly, this dominated the narrative in Chinese state media, along with mentions of China’s Belt and Road, Global Development Initiative and Beijing’s bid for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (which requires collective input in any case)3. The four-point joint statement itself contains three points that note the context of the relationship and a fourth laying out the six means by which both sides aim to deepen and elevate the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership (see table below for a summary)4. These center around: stronger political trust; security cooperation; practical cooperation; more solid social foundation; further coordination and the better management and settlement of disputes5.
Key Touted Inroads in China-Vietnam Joint Statement
Despite the focus on touted inroads, they are not without their limits and do not change the fundamental challenges China poses to Vietnam. For instance, for all the focus on the dozens of agreements signed, which vary in terms of significance and concreteness, there was also less dwelling in some areas relative to Xi’s own sunny op-ed in Vietnamese media on areas like rare earths and critical minerals6. China’s assertiveness in Southeast Asia was also on clear display for Vietnam and the rest of the region ahead of Xi’s visit. Just days before he landed, China had sent the first of its vessels over to Cambodia’s Ream, which has been a hotspot for geopolitical rivalry as noted previously on ASEAN Wonk. Earlier this month, China also held the foreign ministers’ meeting for its Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework where it spotlighted efforts to advance the mechanism that countries including Vietnam and Thailand have their own issues with. The joint statement section on managing differences is also a more explicit acknowledgement of the fraught state of China-Vietnam relations when it comes to issues like the South China Sea, which impose a ceiling on aspects of ties even if the floor is raised.
The interactions between China and Vietnam were also closely watched more widely in Indo-Pacific capitals. In one example of an indication of this, an interlocutor in Hanoi pointed out to ASEAN Wonk that Taiwan had issued a statement in response to the China-Vietnam joint statement, which urged Vietnam not to defer to China and also noted that Hanoi was a priority partner in Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, accounting for among the largest number of new residents, foreign students and migrant workers7. Earlier in the week, another interlocutor in Cambodia observed that the China-Vietnam interactions also inadvertantly ended up overshadowing some of the headline developments in Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet’s visit to Vietnam — part of the evolving subregional balance in mainland Southeast Asia that both Hanoi and Beijing play an important role in8.
Where It’s Headed
With the summit meeting out of the way, the next few months will reveal how much of what was showcased actually translates into tangible cooperation. Some of the touted deliverables, like new trade promotion facilities, are less controversial. But scrutiny will be on projects or initiatives that would illustrate Vietnam’s actual accommodation of Beijing’s initiatives like the BRI, the GDI or even the Global Security Initiative. There will also continue to be a focus on what happens internally within Vietnamese politics, which are an obvious driver in Hanoi’s external alignments.
China-Vietnam relations will also continue to evolve amid Hanoi’s recalibration of its wider ties. As noted previously in these pages, Vietnam has effectively indicated that it is recalibrating its partnership system to accommodate changes in ties, which are themselves the product of a shifting strategic environment. Yet the extent to which this will lead to substantive cooperation shifts remains to be seen. Meanwhile, China will also be looking for opportunities to make progress on its manifold initiatives that Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia will need to manage, including the LMC, the GDI and the BRI after its 10th anniversary this year. And there will be wider regional developments affecting Vietnam as well, such as Laos chairmanship of ASEAN and the broader security, diplomatic and economic implications of that.
Thailand’s Indo-Pacific Link Project; Asia in the Global Migrant Worker Abuse Challenge; The Future of Cambodia’s Growth Story
“The Landbridge project represents an unprecedented opportunity to enhance connectivity between the Pacific and Indian Oceans…plans call for the first phase of construction to begin in September 2025 and run through October 2030,” Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin argues in a new op-ed over at Nikkei Asia. Though the idea has long been met with skepticism in some circles, it has been receiving another round of attention due to its potential to bypass the Straits of Malacca and Srettha’s energetic promoting of it in his foreign trips (link).
Map of Landbridge Project
“Asia-Pacific is the highest sending and receiving region for migrants, with 30% abuses recorded in the region…migrant workers most frequently impacted by cases of abuse were from Nepal, the Philippines and India,” notes the new Migrant Workers Allegations Database released by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center (link).
Map of Documented Migrant Worker Abuses
“Cambodia must go beyond merely generating fast growth and also ensure that this is inclusive, sustainable, and resilient,” warns a new analysis published over at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute. The report charts out the comprehensive opportunities and challenges for Cambodia’s economic future, which includes but also goes beyond the Cambodian government’s ambition to reach upper middle-income country status by 2030 (link).