On April 26, China’s State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe led a high-ranking military delegation to meet with Vietnamese leaders in the capital Hanoi.
State media in both countries stressed strengthening ties and bolstering strategic cooperation for peace, stability and development.
Chinese state media stressed the need to prevent disputes in the South China Sea from harming relations and to address competing issues with trust and respect.
Their reports further claimed that Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc had strongly come out against foreign powers meddling in China’s affairs.
“Phuc said Vietnam firmly upholds the one-China principle and opposes any forces' interference in China's internal affairs.
“Vietnam will stay on guard against and firmly resist any schemes to undermine the Vietnam-China relations, and will never follow other countries in opposing China,” China’s Xinhua News Agency reported Phuc saying at the meeting.
The claim that Phuc said Vietnam will never oppose China is likely false.
No audio or video of the meeting has been published. Any such proclamation would likely be received poorly in Vietnam, where China is regarded with suspicion. A well-connected expert told Voice of America's Vietnamese service that, according to his source at the meeting, Phuc did not use those words.
“Phuc never said that,” said Ha Hoang Hop, a visiting senior fellow for Vietnamese Studies at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
Hop based his opinion on a source who was present at the meeting and who requested anonymity to relay the private sessions. “Vietnamese leaders never say anything [so specifically] detailing its relationship with China,” Hop said.
He also cited Vietnam’s “three no’s” policy — no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil — to argue that such a blanket statement would be at odds with Vietnam’s defense and foreign policy strategies.
Hop said that Phuc, a former prime minister who just became president on April 5, has experience dealing with Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and would never make statements that run counter to Vietnam’s interests.
Commentary posted on Cánh Cò, a news website Hop said is run by Task Force 47, a cyberspace military unit of Vietnam's Defense Department, said that Phuc did discuss a “four no's” policy at the meeting.
However, Thu An, the style and opinion editor who authored the piece, said the policy position to never align with one country against another is not specific to China, and could just as well refer to “Laos, Cambodia, America, France, India, or Russia.”
An states that the “misreporting” is believed to be “the responsibility of some media” and not the intention of the Chinese government.
“Unfortunately, such actions further deteriorate China's image in the international arena,” An wrote.
Hoang Viet, an expert on the South China Sea who lectures at Ho Chi Minh City University of Law, told VOA that relations between Vietnam and China recently soured despite Vietnam’s non-aligned stance, while Vietnam’s ties with the U.S. are growing stronger and are viewed by Hanoi as more beneficial.
Both Polygraph.info and VOA’s Vietnamese service reached out to the Vietnamese government to confirm the Phuc comments without success. The Vietnamese government has not officially disputed the Chinese characterization.
More broadly, there’s reason to believe such a position would be politically untenable in Vietnam. According to a Global Attitudes Survey conducted by Pew Research in 2017, 90% of Vietnamese said China’s growing military power is “a bad thing.”
Some 80% of respondents agreed that China’s power and influence was a major threat to Vietnam, with only 12% calling it a minor threat.
Tensions have been exacerbated by China’s actions in the South China Sea and sweeping claims over the waters, seabed and subsoil, despite international rulings safeguarding the rights of Vietnam and other countries in the region.
Beijing has laid claim to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago that lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Vietnam. The archipelago is disputed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
As Polygraph.info previously reported, to project military power in the region, China has established outposts in the Spratly Islands, as well as deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles.
China has repeatedly sunk Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracel Islands — another South China Sea archipelago, which is equidistant from both states and also claimed by Taiwan. China effectively seized control of the Parcel Islands in January 1974 after a military engagement with what was then the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
China has also reportedly used the threat of force to halt Vietnamese oil drilling projects off Vietnam’s southeastern coast.
More recently, Vietnam and other countries have rejected the legitimacy of thousands of domestic trademarks China filed for myriad land features scattered throughout the South China Sea, Radio Free Asia reported.
However, China continues to militarize the region. In January, Beijing passed a bill giving its coast guard the right to fire on ships in disputed waters, inspect ships in Chinese-claimed waters and destroy structures on Chinese-claimed reefs, Reuters reported.
And despite Chinese opposition to the Indo-Pacific strategy forged by former U.S. President Donald Trump, which seeks to give all Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) an “equal stake in determining the future of the region,” analysts say Hanoi has privately supported Washington’s engagement in the region.
China’s Communist Party-run Global Times claimed the U.S. strategy “will undermine regional integration, unity and peace” and asserted that Vietnam does not “want to be made use of” in that way.
Speaking to the Times, Xu Liping, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, cited Phuc’s alleged statement about never opposing China.
Xu claimed Vietnam was sending “a clear signal to the U.S. and other Western countries outside the region that Vietnam will not be used by any external forces.”