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China and Vietnam’s Shared Values and Newfound Unity in a Novel and Turbulent Geopolitical Era

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

©Xinhua. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and Chinese president, welcomes Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee, prior to their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, October 31, 2022

From October 30th to November 2nd, Vietnam's Communist Party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, was the first state official to visit Beijing and meet Xi Jinping following the 20th Congress (Vietnam, 2022). This visit was a show of solidarity and a sign that Trong wants the two countries' relations to remain healthy. In fact, despite its reliance on trade with Beijing, Hanoi has evolved into the new "manufacturing hub" of electronic technology, clothing, and various high-intensity labor sectors, making the country an increasingly important player on the international stage as a mediator as well as an ally between China and the Western Powers (Fasulo and Morselli, 2022). On October 31st, the two leaders held a meeting in which both parties agreed to intensify collaboration, reflecting the willingness and necessity of renewing and strengthening the alliance in the face of a new era (CRI online, 2022). The People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are two of the world's most populous socialist countries, with economies that are constantly expanding and growing. In particular, Vietnam is ranking as one of the world's fastest growing countries since 2017 (Chinappi, 2022). The visit concluded with the next step in the strategic comprehensive cooperation partnership as13 new documents, pertaining to political cooperation, justice, trade, customs, and the environment, were signed.

To better understand the interconnections and diplomatic relations between the two countries, it is necessary to go back to 1950: Just a few months after Mao Zedong established the CCP,Vietnam shifted from being regarded as a mere appendix of China to one resembling a partner and foreseeable ally. Despite their geographical as well as ideological proximity, the relations have always been marked by tension, mistrust, and caution. In 1979, Hanoi and Beijing even fought a brief border war when the former invaded Cambodia, ending the dictatorship of Pol Pot, a Chinese ally (Masina, 2022). Consequently, tensions between the two countries rose to a high level, leaving them in a status quo ante bellum phase. The latter was only resolved in 1999, when a bilateral agreement over border claims was signed. Since then, retaliation has continued, particularly over the right to control Spratly and Paracelso islands, a dispute that has yet to be resolved. Millennial hostility can still be seen today with the South China Sea dispute, in which China claims ownership of 80% of the territory and has resulted in an armed conflict on the verge of military escalation on multiple occasions. This dispute is only a small part of China's larger claim for sovereignty over a large-scale maritime zone which contains oil fields and serves as the main trade route from East Asia to West India (Pollard, 2022). On top of these difficulties, there is the involvement of a variety of actors who are not directly involved in the disputes but are opposed to China, potentially leading to a future military confrontation rather than a peaceful resolution (Pollard, 2022).

There is one element that made this particular visit into a special occasion in and of itself, as highlighted both in the joint statement as well as in the unilateral comments published on the respective Foreign Ministries websites’. On the Vietnamese part, it was Nguyen Phu Trong’s first official visit abroad since the CPV’s 13th National Congress, which saw him re-elected as General Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee. A fulfillment of a promise apparently made by him to Xi Jinping himself. On the Chinese part, this was likewise the first head-of-state level delegation received by President Xi after his own re-election in the 20th CPC National Congress. A symbolic conjuncture which links well with the two main aspects that constitute the essence of the meeting: a new beginning for China-Vietnam relations and its strongly socialist characterization.

It is worth noting that, despite the two neighbors' long history of squabbles, their Communist parties remain officially close not only to avoid irreparable fractures but also because they share ideological similarities (Masina, 2022). Trong, like Xi, has remained as party chief beyond the usual tenure of one or two terms, cementing his influence in a party that has traditionally been governed by consensus among its politburo and powerful central committee (Pollard, 2022). Furthermore, both China and Vietnam see increasing ideological infiltration from the United States. The CCP and VCP both feel threatened by the “West”, so they have strengthened exchanges and sought useful ways to protect both their socialist systems and the governing power of their respective communist parties (Peng, 2022).

It would be naive to be surprised by the strong reference to socialism in a document resulting from the meeting between two heads of State which are simultaneously heads of their respective national Communist Parties. But it is nevertheless worth noticing how socialism is referred to in this particular instance. The intention to mark this as a new era of stronger ties between the two countries seems to stem from a pessimistic view of the world’s geopolitical climate portrayed as unpredictable and imminently turbulent. The cruciality of staying committed to it is accompanied by an express vow to “never allow anyone to disturb our progress or any force to shake the institutional foundation of our development” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2022). What follows is a call for a stronger cooperation between the parties on both a central and local level with respect to the fields of party governance and state administration (which are bound to be tightly linked in two Communist countries such as the ones in question). It appears that the socialist system adopted by the two countries, their institutional as well as economical foundation, is perceived as being potentially endangered by outside influences. In fact, the parties plan to encourage a deeper cooperation in the fields of law, security, as well as “press and publicity to create a sound atmosphere of public opinion for bilateral relations” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2022).

During the meeting, Trong emphasized Vietnam's long-standing tradition of respecting foreign policy independence, self-sufficiency, diversification, and multilateralism. He portrays the country as a dependable member of the international community, emphasizing global relations while reinforcing and reaffirming the need for and willingness to continue strategic cooperation and synergies with China (CGTN, 2022). On his part, Xi emphasized the significance of the meeting between his Vietnamese counterpart and China's efforts to improve and broaden not only the two countries' collaboration but also friendship, resulting in global strategic comprehensive cooperation. To use Xi’s words, the relations between Hanoi and Beijing will be of “friendly neighboring, global cooperation and long-term strategic stability” as they share the spirit of “good neighbors, good friends, good companions and good partners" (CGTN,2022).

If arduous is the task of analyzing any current geopolitical scenario without considering the increasing East-West competition, such an attempt becomes futile at best when the focus shifts on the Indo-Pacific area, where the confrontation between US and China reaches its peak. Vietnam is a strategic country in this competition and has in recent years combined its role as a communist country with leaving an open door to the US, a balancing exercise that has been largely caused by the well-known tensions between China and other countries bordering the South China Sea. It has been noted how Trong’s Beijing trip can be read as a much-needed reassurance to China in view of Biden’s visit to Cambodia for the ASEAN-US Summit which took place in November (Nian Peng, 2022). On this note, Trong once again spelled out the long-standing Vietnamese policy according to which Hanoi will not use force against another country, join military alliances, allow foreign military bases on its territory nor work in any way with a country to oppose another. Is it truly a coincidence that in the report published on the Chinese MFA website this statement immediately follows the Vietnamese absolute adherence to the One-China Policy and its commitment to not develop any official relation with Taiwan?

Once taken into account the looming presence of the US, even the reference to socialism can be seen in a rather practical light. In an article resulting from an interview of the director of the China-ASEAN Maritime Security Research Center at Guangxi University for Nationalities, Ge Hongliang, a summary identified three main pillars why China can be reassured Vietnam will cooperate with Washington only limitedly: its non-interventive stance, its political and geographical closeness to China, and last but not least the ideological divide which makes the West not only distant but also potentially dangerous for the stability of the country (Liu Zixuan, 2022). A different source notes how the ideological turn of the Biden administration has complemented the degrading reliability of Russia as Hanoi’s partner - and arms exporter - due to the Ukraine war. These two factors would be the true reason leading Trong to the path of bilateral agreements with Beijing in an attempt to control the course of action of its greatest neighbor (Heydarian, 2022).

The talks and negotiations produced 13 new agreements, many of which are economically significant. Despite a slowdown in the supply chain caused by the pandemic, lockdowns, and the implementation of the zero-covid policy, China remains Vietnam's most important trading partner and a major source of imports for the country's rapidly expanding economy, including raw materials and machinery for the country's critical manufacturing sector (Jennings, 2022). The commitment on Beijing’s part to ensure the stability of industrial and supply chains, as well as encouraging technology-intensive Chinese enterprises’ investments in Vietnam, could therefore be read as the counterpart to the Vietnamese reassurance in the fields of security and defense. Throughout the last decade, especially since joining the WTO in 2007, Vietnam has played an important role not only as an economic partner and focal point of the majority of foreign investments, but also as a moderator in an otherwise tense dynamic between Eastern and Western powers. Multiple free trade agreements had been signed as a result of its role, but two in particular shed light on the country as a major player in the international scenario (Vietnam, 2022). The first is the free trade agreement ratified with the European Union in 2020, which strengthened Vietnam's position as a magnet for foreign investment. The second agreement illustrates the Regional and Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, in addition to ASEAN countries, includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and represented the largest trade agreement ever signed, as it incorporated countries that account for approximately 30% of global GDP and 30% of global trade (Vietnam, 2022). Finally, in order to preserve its economic growth and social cohesiveness, Vietnam expects this renewed “friendship” to benefit from China's experiences in economic development and social stability, thus absorbing more Chinese investment and technology (Peng, 2022).

Finally, both Vietnam and China are portraying themselves as countries fighting for greater and long-term happiness, prosperity, as well as peace. This is not limited to their own people, but it also expands to humanity as a whole (Chinappi, 2022). It would be a stretch to consider this meeting as a complete allegiance on the part of Vietnam to the “Chinese cause.” And yet at the same time, it is undeniable that it marks at the very least a newfound communion of interests between the two countries which will likely have long-lasting effects on the dynamics unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region. A development which would have been considered extremely improbable during the harshest moments of the South China Sea complex dispute. It is worth remarking on this note point 9 of the joint statement, which does not declare instantly resolved all issues in the area but - in a diplomatic and conciliatory tone - states the intention to “seek basic long-term solutions acceptable to both sides” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, 2022). Only time will tell if this new synergy will be long-lasting. For now, the message is clear: socialist countries are putting a united front against any external influence threatening their political systems. It seems like in this increasingly turbulent world, ideology will remain a force to be reckoned with.

About the Authors:

Alice Colantoni graduated with a Bachelor in Chinese Language and Civilization at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. She also holds a master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Shanghai University, SHU, China. Her main fields of interest include Chinese History, EU-China Relations, and the intersection of Chinese political thought and culture

Giulia Alessandra Foti has a bachelor’s degree in Music and a master’s degree in Law from the University of Trento. She spent a semester at Shanghai University and a year studying Chinese Language at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She has worked as a Research Assistant for the Covid-19 Litigation Project and is currently attending a Master course in Cyber Intelligence, Big Data and Security of Critical Infrastructures at the Italian Society for International Organization (SIOI).

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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