The Undercurrent of Sino-Vietnamese Relations

Since 2010, the South China Sea disputes have emerged as the most acute issue in the Sino-Vietnamese relationship. Bilateral relations have suffered greatly as China expands its land reclamation and maritime control in the region, challenging what Vietnam perceives to be its sovereign territory and exclusive economic zones. While most attention has been focused on the contentious maritime disputes and how the two sides will resolve their differences and mitigate tensions, observers seem to have neglected a more fundamental aspect in the bilateral relations, that is, the relations between the two communist parties. Vietnam has been pursuing economic reforms since 1986 and political reforms since the 9th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in 2001. The future direction of the political reforms by the CPV and the potential effect on the liberalization of the country could have more significant impact on Sino-Vietnamese relations than any existing territorial disputes between the two. Although China remains convinced that the CPV is unlikely to abandon its one-party rule in the near future, it is detecting worrying signs, which form the undercurrent of Sino-Vietnamese relations.

The CPV faces a dilemma in its relations with China as well. At the state level, failure to defend Vietnamese territorial claims would jeopardize its political legitimacy and internal stability. As a political party that ascended to power through a revolutionary war, the CPV is not in a position to make concessions or appear weak in front of China. However, at the party level, maintaining the political solidarity with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) despite the territorial disputes is extremely difficult. The CPV’s political reform puts itself on a different trajectory from the CCP as both parties search for new sources of legitimacy domestically. Although the jury is still out on whether the CPV can successfully pursue political liberalization without upsetting its one-party rule, the disagreements between the CPV and the CCP on that issue seem to be deepening.

The bilateral relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have undergone significant ups and downs since 1949.  After establishing diplomatic relations with North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) in 1950, China had provided financial and military assistance to the CPV to fight against South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam) and the United States. After the unification of Vietnam in 1975, bilateral relations deteriorated due to the rapid improvement of relations between Vietnam and the Soviet Union, which culminated in the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. After the end of the Cold War, bilateral relations recovered as both countries focused on economic reform and domestic development, even asthe South China Sea disputes upset their bilateral ties from time to time. However, the diverging perceptions about political reform between the CCP and the CPV reflect a larger, more profound, and potentially most disturbing aspect of their relationship.

China’s Perceptions of Vietnam’s Socialist Reforms

After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, how the remaining socialist countries under the rule of communist parties would proceed has become a critical issue for China and the CCP. The question is not only fundamentally associated with the legitimacy and future of the CCP, but also whether its socialist path and authoritarian system could be justified as a viable alternative model to the Western democratic system. The CCP has devoted significant effort to analyzing the underlying causes of the failure of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Their abandonment of proletarian ideology and misdirected political reform are identified as the key lessons from their fall.1

Currently, there are five remaining socialist countries under one-party rule by communist parties: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba. In Chinese thinking, North Korea, Laos, and Cuba are unlikely to project political and economic appeal in the foreseeable future given their stagnant domestic development. In contrast, China and Vietnam achieved a relatively higher level of success in their socialist market economy reforms and have a better chance to become exemplary cases to demonstrate the superiority of socialism and increase its attractiveness in the world. 2

China generally perceives Vietnam’s economic reforms as derivative of the Chinese model.3 Hanoi initiated its economic reform in 1986 after the 6th National Congress of the CPV, with a goal of creating a socialist-oriented market economy. In the three decades since then, the CPV has gradually replaced the centrally-planned economy with a market economy managed by the state; legalized the private sector; and opened up to the outside world to attract foreign investment. The result of the economic reforms has been impressive: Vietnam’s per capita GDP growth since 1990 has been among the fastest in the world, averaging 5.5 percent per year since 1990, and 6.4 in the 2000s.4

Perceiving China as the teacher and Vietnam as its student originates from the fact that the Chinese reform predates the Vietnamese reform by about a decade. Given their different natural endowments and importance to the world market, the integration of China into the global economy progressed much faster than that of Vietnam. For example, China was granted free trade status under the Most Favored Nation category by the United States in 1980 and, subsequently, Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) in 1999. In comparison, Vietnam only was granted temporary free trade status in 2001 on an annual waiver basis, and obtained PNTR in 2006. China’s accession to WTO in 2001 also predated that of Vietnam by five years.

While China may have been the forerunner in the economic arena, Vietnam has been progressing much faster and more boldly on political reforms. Vietnam has been experimenting with greater internal party democracy and direct elections. As early as its 9th National Congress, the CPV had begun to replace single-candidate elections with competitive elections for its Politburo members and senior official positions. In the view of many Chinese, intra-party competition has become an important feature of the Vietnamese political system. In grass-root level elections, the CPV has launched pilot programs, such as direct elections of municipal party chiefs by local party congresses.

On inter-party competition, Vietnam revised its constitution in 2013 to allow for non-party candidates to stand for election to the National Assembly. In the most recent National Assembly election this past May, the number of self-nominated and independent candidates (many of whom are civil society activists) increased from 30 in the 2007 and 82 in the 2011, to more than 100.5 While the actual number of such candidates being elected remains extremely small, the accommodation for their candidacy represents increasing pluralism.

Another characteristic of Vietnam’s political reform is the decentralization of power and the “checks and balances” system within the political establishment. This is reflected in the division of authority among four senior offices: the president, prime minister, general secretary of CPV, and chairperson of the National Assembly. According to the Chinese observations, Vietnam has demonstrated signs of party-state separation: while the state remains under the leadership of the party, the CPV has required its local offices to mitigate interference in the executive affairs of the state as long as the decisions are in line with the general guidelines and principles of the party. A Chinese scholar has noted this tendency in the CPV’s reform: “To reform the CPV’s leadership style means that the CPV offices at all levels must refrain from imposing their view on the government, refrain from doing the government’s job, and refrain from replacing the government with the party.”6

Also, the role of the National Assembly has become significantly more influential and expansive. Although the overwhelming majority of the National Assembly members are CPV members, the National Assembly is no longer a “rubber stamp” of the government’s decisions.7 Constitutionally the supreme government organization and highest representative of the people, the National Assembly has asserted its authority and expanded its role in recent years. It has vetoed cabinet appointments, forced the government to revise major commercial legislation, and successfully demanded an increase in its powers, including the rights to review each line of the government’s budget, hold no-confidence votes against the government, and dismiss the president and the prime minister.8

These systematic reforms within the political system are believed to have changed the overall political atmosphere within the CPV, making it more transparent in decision-making and more tolerant of divergent political views. The presence of different factions within the CPV further allows for more competition and debate over the party’s policies and guidelines. While most of these measures are focused on internal reform of the CPV without touching the core issue of the one-party system, they, nevertheless, represent a trend of liberalization in Vietnamese politics that will have long-term impact for the future of the party, and further, the country.

Chinese Concerns

For some years, Chinese analysts have recognized that Vietnam’s political reform is evolving in a direction different from that of China and at a pace much faster than what the CCP is willing to accommodate in China. Privately, some of them even acknowledge that in the political reform realm, “the student (Vietnam) has surpassed the teacher (China).”9 Some in China may be watching to see how Vietnam’s experiments with political reform proceed, and whether it could find new sources of legitimacy within the overarching framework of authoritarianism; thereby defying predictions about the “end of history,” that liberal democracy is the final form of government for all nations.

As Vietnam’s political reform progresses, a concern has also been growing in China over another scenario that may transpire. That is, whether the gradual liberalization in Vietnam would eventually lead to another “color revolution.” “The end of history” has not yet transpired in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the liberal democratic system has not prevailed as the final form of government. However, for the CCP, any success or failure of the remaining five socialist/communist countries will have significant political implications. Within the socialist camp, China and Vietnam are thus far the only two examples whose development and governance experiences are worthy of being called a potential alternative to the liberal democratic system. If the result of Vietnam’s political reform eventually ends up in democratization, it will significantly damage the strength and reputation of what once was called the communist camp, undermine the political legitimacy of the CCP, and even threaten the stability of China’s own political system.

The key question for Chinese analysts, therefore, is whether the political reform pursued by the CPV will eventually result in the demise of its one-party rule and in Vietnam’s “color revolution.” Although the jury is still out on the question, the Chinese have identified alarming signs of the CPV potentially crumbling from within.

The first problem is decreasing internal cohesiveness through factionalism and the ideological competition it represents. China has long observed a geographical division inside the CPV since the country’s unification in 1975. It is argued that the CPV’s senior leadership, the “troika” (president, prime minister and party general secretary), consists of cadres from the north, the south, and the central regions. Generally speaking, China sees the “northern faction” as composed of traditional socialists with a higher level of affinity toward China and caution about the political reform. The “southern faction” is believed to host more radical reformists prone to the Western experience of democratic socialism.

For Chinese analysts, the division of political power according to geographical regions creates a strong foundation for factionalism with the CPV, and even potential for federalism. In recent years, although the role of the National Assembly has been greatly boosted, transforming the “troika” into a “four-horse carriage,” the “geopolitics” of Vietnam’s higher leadership has remained unchanged. For example, in the current leadership composition from the CPV’s 12th National Congress, the Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and President Tran Dai Quang are seen as from the “northern faction” while Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan represent the “southern faction.”

For China, the “four-horse carriage” format in the leadership of the CPV may have prevented one or two top leaders from monopolizing power; however, it also, in reality, weakens the leadership of the CPV and creates fertile ground for division within the party. Especially when these leaders disagree over key issues related to the country’s domestic and foreign policies, the lack of centralization among its top leaders significantly undermines the priorities and solidarity of the party. In one widely cited example, former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung opposed the CPV’s decision to declare the anti-China riot in May 2014 to have been agitated by “anti-socialism forces in and outside Vietnam.”10

Chinese sources see the theorists of the CPV as having developed a vision for Vietnam as under the “socialist rule of law,” where law is above everything and encompasses democracy, justice, and equality.11 However, for the Chinese, this inevitably subjugates the party to that rule of law. In an ideal situation, such laws would have been drawn up and determined by the party. In reality, however, factional politics, decentralization of power, and the ever-growing authority of the National Assembly as the legislative body, allude to a rather different scenario, where the party could eventually become secondary. At the current stage, the CPV still appears to be in charge of the decision-making. However, Chinese analysts observe increasingly disturbing signs of the state challenging the party, or the legislature challenging both the state and the party.12

Similar problems are identified within civil society and the social media. The economic and political reforms since 1986 have provided considerable space for greater civic life in Vietnam, leading to the emergence of NGOs that engage in a wide range of social issues. A 2012 Asia Foundation Report estimates the number of civil society organizations in Vietnam to be between 1700 and 2000.13 Many of them maintain a quasi-government status and receive funding from the government. However, other NGOs, including those foreign, are developing quickly, sometimes beyond the control of the CPV. In particular, Chinese media noted that some anti-CPV, anti-government foreign NGOs have been able to cultivate local dissidents and support demonstrations inside Vietnam from abroad.14 How to manage civil society and prevent it from becoming a threat to the political system is a headache for the CCP. In this sense, the Chinese find it astounding and unfortunate that the CPV has loosened its control over the social media, including Facebook, the most popular social media site in the country.15 One Chinese official described: “Once you let that cat out of the bag, it is impossible to put it back.”16

Although the CPV’s one-party system continues to be the object of widespread criticism in and outside Vietnam for the lack of political reform, in China’s view, the political liberalization and decentralization, limited as they are, are already worrisome. Mainstream specialists in China may still believe that the CPV has no intention of abandoning its one-party system, but the concern is that Vietnam might have moved too hastily without fully anticipating the consequences of its decisions. In the case of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev implemented the dual program of “perestroika” and “glasnost,” believing that the Communist Party could still maintain control of the political system and society despite liberalization and diversification. However, in the Chinese perception, once the reforms began, Gorbachev lost all options but to be pushed to abandon the proletarian ideology, one-party political system, and state-owned economy. Whether Vietnam is on the same track remains to be seen, but China is seeing increasingly alarming signs about loosening CPV control of the country, the society, and its political power.

China and US-Vietnam relations

In the Chinese perception, the top US priority in Vietnam remains a “color revolution,” and Vietnam is particularly susceptible to US wishes for several reasons. The French colonial experience had left Vietnam with the legacy of Western democratic ideals. With Vietnam’s economy opening up, the enhanced economic and social exchanges inevitably result in the inflow of Western liberal ideas.  This is exacerbated by the more than four million Vietnamese immigrants in the United States nostalgic about the South Vietnam regime and hostile toward the CPV government. Meanwhile, Vietnam has a sizable community of political dissidents, human rights activists, ethnic minorities and religious leaders. All these factors, combined, create fertile ground for the US democratization efforts in Vietnam.

China sees such democratization campaigns as having achieved major success in Southeast Asia in recent years: Indonesia’s democratic transition has proceeded smoothly, as demonstrated by the most recent presidential election in 2014. Under the Obama administration’s sanctions and engagement policy, Myanmar’s military junta has adopted political reforms since 2011 and democratized the country, which culminated in the first civilian government in decades. Cambodia’s democratic opposition, such as Sam Rainsy, has become an increasingly important political force with US financial and political support, with potential to challenge Hun Sen and his Cambodia People’s Party in 2018. Now in Vietnam, US promotion of human rights, religious freedom, labor rights, portend to the Chinese the “next step” in the US democratization campaign in Southeast Asia. Stringent standards associated with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), including on the establishment of independent labor unions, substantiate the suspicions that the United States is cracking the CPV’s hold on power.

Within Southeast Asia, China cannot help but link American democratization campaigns with Washington’s geopolitical agenda. In the case of Vietnam, what has been most disconcerting for China is that the anti-CPV agenda has been closely associated with anti-China nationalism in the country. On the issue of the South China Sea, the CPV is having to choose between Vietnam’s interest as a nation and the CPV’s interest as its ruling party. Anti-China nationalism has become a new populist tool to demonstrate who is most loyal to the Vietnamese nation and, therefore, most suitable to lead the country. For China, the US involvement in the South China Sea has emboldened Vietnamese nationalists and alienated the party-to-party solidarity between the CCP and CPV. Most importantly, it has created an ostensible existential crisis, equating the South China Sea dispute to the survival of the Vietnamese nation, and, therefore, driving a powerful wedge between the two communist parties. In this sense, the US “color revolution” is a bigger a problem for China than its foreign policy divide with Vietnam.

In this sense, the rapprochement between the United States and Vietnam under the Obama administration, including the exchange of senior level visits, the TPP negotiations, and the lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam, for China, is not only a convergence of their strategic interests, but also US exploitation of Vietnam’s insecurity vis-à-vis China. However, how this rapprochement will transpire in the end hinges greatly on the result of the CPV’s political reform.

Vietnam’s political system and the CPV are China’s last source of confidence that US-Vietnam rapprochement is more symbolic than substantive. The prevailing belief in China, interviews suggest, is that Vietnam, a socialist country, faces fundamental constraints in developing ties with the United States, which not only holds a critical view of Vietnam’s human rights record, but also intends to change the Vietnamese political system through “peaceful evolution.” In Chinese observations, as long as the CPV remains unwilling to forgo the one-party rule in Vietnam, its rapprochement with the United States will be limited. Washington’s relations with an authoritarian/socialist country like Vietnam will be fundamentally constrained by its domestic constituencies, especially the Congress and the human rights community. China believes that as long as the CPV is rational— which in the Chinese lexicon means that it will not commit political suicide as the Soviet Union did under Gorbachev—its relations with China will not be derailed.

While Western observers may believe that Vietnam is trying to break away from China by pursuing closer ties with the United States, the record of senior-level visits by Vietnamese leaders shows a strikingly different story. Party Secretary General Trong visited Washington in July 2015, which was seen as an ice-breaking trip by many. However, people neglected to mention that he had paid an equally significant visit to Beijing three months earlier. And six months before Hanoi received President Obama, it also celebrated a top-level state visit by President Xi Jinping. In 2015, three out of the four top leaders of Vietnam—party secretary general, state president, and chairman of the parliament—visited Beijing. Their trips were reciprocated by the visits of two Chinese Politburo Standing Committee members: Xi and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. After the 12th Party Congress in January 2016, Xi was the first leader to send his special envoy to congratulate Trong in person. And the special envoy of the CPV secretary general was the first foreign guest Xi greeted after the lunar new year. 

For the time being, given the intimacy at the top level, the Chinese policy community generally sees the South China Sea disputes between China and Vietnam as manageable through party-to-party channels. Beijing understands that Vietnam is unlikely to accede to Beijing’s claims and seeks to balance China’s strength through US ties. But the bilateral ties are manageable. China is also convinced that Hanoi has become much more careful about agitating domestic nationalist sentiment in order not to repeat the anti-China protests of 2014. This is not necessarily for the sake of favorable Sino-Vietnamese relations, but rather, regime security, as some of the protests evolved to target Vietnam’s socialist path and communist government, both of which are closely associated with China.


Sino-Vietnamese bilateral relations and Vietnam’s alignment choice between the United States and China hinge significantly on Vietnam’s current political system and on the party-to-party solidarity between the CPV and CCP. This reality only increases China’s stake in Vietnam’s domestic political reform. A fundamental question facing both the CCP and CPV is domestic legitimacy, which were firmly grounded by their success in the revolutionary wars. Yet decades later, when the revolutionary credentials became no longer sufficient, both the CCP and the CPV have relied on economic growth to claim developmental legitimacy. The CPV has further dived into the realm of political reforms to broaden and strengthen the foundation of its claims for legitimacy. Yet, the CCP has been more cautious, reluctant to indulge in political/social liberalization for fear of repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union. Although the CPV’s political experiments are far from being seen as genuine political liberalization or democratization by Western observers, for China, they already represent alarming signals about Vietnam’s political trajectory.

The current state of Sino-Vietnamese relations is complicated. At the state level, historical experience and geopolitics make Vietnam highly suspicious of China’s intentions and policies. While this is true for almost all Southeast Asian countries in their relations with China, Vietnam is unique in that its socialist path and communist party’s one-party rule offer much more grounds for convergence and solidarity with the CCP than with the United States. China is concerned about its disputes with Vietnam in the South China Sea. But the larger, more unsettling undercurrents in Sino-Vietnamese relations are Vietnam’s political reforms and their uncertain impact over not only Vietnam’s communist regime, but also the CCP’s political legitimacy in China. 

1. Tian Wenlin, “Cong Sulian gaige jiaoxun kan Zhongguo gaige de wubi zhengque,” Sixiang Zhengzhi Gongzuo Yanjiu, December 6, 2013,

2. Interview, Beijing, July 2016.

3. He Liangliang, “Zhongguo moshi ke fuzhixing gao Yuenan xiaoguo zuijia,” Huanqiu Shibao, September 23, 2009,

4. “World Bank Country Overview: Vietnam,” The World Bank,

5. Hai Hong Nguyen, “Are Vietnam’s Elections Becoming More Democratic?” East Asia Foundation, March 23, 2016,

6. Chen Yuanzhong, Rui Guanghui, and Chen Yingxue, “Lun gexin gaifang yilai Yuenan Gongchangdang nei minzhu zhidu jianshe,” Guangxi Minzu Daxue Xuebao, February 22, 2016,

7. Yu Shui, “Fojue gaotie gongmu zhangxian shili: Yuenan guohui buzai shi ‘xiangpi tuzhang,’” China Radio International, January 14, 2011,

8. Vietnam: Electoral, Political Parties Laws and Regulations Handbook(Washington, D.C.: International Business Publications, 2015), ,  248.

9. Interview, Beijing, June 2016.

10. Interview, Beijing, July 2016.

11. Yang Shuang, “Yuenan shehuizhuyi de gexin de jige tedian,” Xuexi shibao,

12. Interview, Beijing, July 2016

13. William Taylor, “Civil Society in Vietnam,” The Asia Foundation, 2012,

14. “Developing Countries’ Control of Western NGOs”, International Herald Leader, March 31, 2015,

15. James Hookway, “Five Things About Internet in Vietnam,” The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2015,

16. Interview, Beijing, July 2016.