Thirty years after they went to war with each other, Beijing and Hanoi have opted for cooperation, even if Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia view China’s growing presence with suspicion.
In China, the war that began on February 17, 1979 is not even mentioned, and few young people here know the history of how their nation launched a brief but bloody invasion into their small southern neighbour and later withdrew without a clear victory.
“The toning down of public statements about the Sino-Vietnam conflict reflects growing interdependence and pragmatism in today’s bilateral relations,” said Chin-Hao Huang, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
“Both sides are willing to cast aside historical grievances and work together on building trade, business and economic relations, monitoring and combating disease outbreaks like the avian flu and cracking down on narcotics trade, among many other issues of mutual interest.”
Although relations have improved, disputes remain in the oil-rich South China Sea, where Beijing and Hanoi vie for sovereignty over the Spratley and Paracel islands.
The Chinese parliament has voted to declare Chinese sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea, but has proposed joint exploitation of resources, said Jean-Claude Pomonti, a Bangkok-based journalist.
“The Vietnamese suspicion of the Chinese remains intact, but they have no choice (but to agree to Chinese proposals),” said Pomonti, who is also the author of a book on Southeast Asia.
At the same time, three decades after deadly hostilities between the communist neighbours, a military option is out of the question.
“The fact that China has agreed and signed on to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with Vietnam and other Asean member states is an important step in the right direction to resolving the conflict through non-military means,” said SIPRI’s Huang.
The Cold War is over, and Indochina is no longer an arena of ideologically charged rivalry among the United States, the Soviet Union and China.
The Americans may still play an important role in the region, but China is leaving heavy footprints too.
Investment, resource exploitation and trade are the reasons why the Asian giant is so interested in the region.
Vietnam imported 15.6 billion dollars of Chinese goods last year with bilateral trade totalling 20.1 billion dollars.
Other parts of Southeast Asia are becoming engaged with China too: In the northwest of Laos, vast rubber plantations produce for the Chinese markets.
A brand new highway, one of the best in all of Laos, cuts through the country facilitating transportation between China and Southeast Asia.
As a sign of the growing engagement between the two areas, Beijing named a special ambassador to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in December.
“The strengthened presence of China especially in the economic field is an opportunity for Asean to reach a new market,” said Rodolfo C. Severino, a former Asean secretary general and now a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
“It’s not so much a question of traditional balance of power, but more an opportunity for Asean as a group to deal with the great powers to gain influence.”
But the majority of Southeast Asian countries remain worried about China’s long-term interests and regional ambitions, according to SIPRI’s Huang.
“As such, most Southeast Asian countries prefer to see a strong, continued presence of the United States and Japan to help maintain the balance in regional stability,” he said.