A delegation from Vietnam has finished a high-level trip to Burma at a crucial time in regional diplomacy for both countries.
The group was lead by Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, Hoang Trung Hai, and according to the state-run Vietnamese News Agency signed a raft of agreements on key areas of economic cooperation, from aviation, agriculture, finance and mining.
However there are key geopolitical issues for both countries: for Vietnam its recent spat with Beijing over South China Sea islands with oil potential will have necessitated a push by Hai to build regional allies and prize states away from the regional giant.
Burma’s campaign to garner support in its bid for the ASEAN chair in 2014 will have likewise been a big factor in the talks. Following discussions between Hai and Burmese Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo in Naypyidaw, the Vietnamese News Agency said Hanoi “supports Myanmar’s [Burma’s] bid to assume ASEAN 2014 chairmanship”.
But the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is perhaps the more delicate issue. ASEAN nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have attempted to bargain collectively with China, despite all three nations making separate conflicting claims over the tiny islands and maritime territories. Burma in this respect will have to tread carefully.
After making his first state visit since changing titles from prime minister to president, Thein Sein will have to balance ASEAN with China whilst simultaneously bidding for Beijing’s economic, military and diplomatic power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. He will also continue to push for the vital role of ASEAN chairmanship which will be a valuable boost to the country’s international image.
Vietnam meanwhile began live fire drills off its coast on Monday which, strikingly given recent history, will be with the US navy’s Pacific fleet, the world’s largest. The two old adversaries appear to have warmed in the face of a mutual threat, with the US allegedly pushing aggressively for stronger relations in order to dent China’s growing power.
Responding to the Spratly Islands dispute, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Hong Lei, told the Financial Times: “We hope that countries that are not parties to the South China Sea dispute truly respect the efforts of the countries concerned to resolve their disputes through consultation.”
The Vietnamese meanwhile have allowed street protests against the Chinese and, perhaps significantly, released lists on its official website detailing who would be exempt from military conscription should there be a war.
Despite their shared communist histories, Vietnam and China have long had an uneasy relationship, which resulted in a border war in 1979 shortly after the Vietnamese had finished vanquishing western powers from the country.
Vietnam remains an important player in ASEAN, while it is seen as a natural ally to Burma given its role as a powerful counter-balance to the more liberal nations such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. The economic relationship between the two countries also holds tremendous potential, with the Vietnamese News Agency quoting Thein Sein as “[speaking] highly of Vietnam’s achievements in its renewal process”.
In this respect Vietnam may provide the best template for economic reform for Burma, given the integration of private enterprise and foreign direct investment into its manufacturing sector. It has also seen huge success in developing its agricultural system to rival Thailand as a leading exporter of rice, likely prompting the agreement between Hai and Burmese agriculture minister U Myint Hlaing to cooperate in the agriculture sector.