Ramses AMER

China and Vietnam share a complicated history. Their relationship has been characterized by long periods of collaboration and shorter periods of conflicts. Currently relations and collaboration are expanding and the two countries are addressing their territorial disputes through negotiations.

Vietnam was a part of the Chinese empire for more than a thousand years before gaining independence in the tenth century CE. However, the independent Vietnam remained under Chinese cultural and political influence, and a tributary relationship developed. The period of French colonial rule in Vietnam during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth ended this close relationship.

After Vietnam regained independence from France in 1954, relations between China and Vietnam were officially closed until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Thereafter, relations deteriorated further into open hostilities in early 1979, and tensions remained high for most of the 1980s. During the late 1980s relations started to improve, leading to full normalization in November 1991. The 1990s were characterized by two contradictory trends: expanding and improving relations in most fields on the one hand and recurring periods of tension relating to border disputes on the other hand. Both countries are trying to manage and eventually settle the border disputes. The early 2000s have been characterized by less tension compared with the 1990s relating to territorial issues and by expanding political and economic relations.


Relations between the countries were close during the 1950s and for two decades China provided the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with extensive economic and military assistance. China sent thousands of advisers to assist in various fields. China also provided considerable assistance during the Vietnam War. However, differences between the two nations developed during the 1960s and into the first half of the 1970s because of varying perceptions of the Soviet Union and divergent views on relations with the United States. After the 1973 Paris agreement, which led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and established a cease-fire in the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese claimed that Chinese leaders had advised them to diminish the level of the fighting in the south for a few years, advice perceived as aimed at keeping Vietnam divided. China rejected this claim.

Sino-Vietnamese Relations, 1975–1991

In 1975 China’s allies emerged victorious in the war in Vietnam, and experts expected that relations between China and Vietnam would continue to be very close. However, relations between China and Vietnam dramatically declined from seemingly good in 1975 to war in 1979. Relations deteriorated over several issues. First were differences in opinion concerning the Soviet Union and China’s uneasiness about Vietnam’s relations with that country. Second were conflicting interests in Cambodia and China’s gradually increasing support for Cambodia in the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia. Third, territorial disputes between China and Vietnam caused tension. Fourth, the way in which the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were treated became an issue. In fact, the mass migration of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam in the spring of 1978 officially led to the public deterioration of bilateral relations between the two countries.

The overall deterioration of relations led to a militarized conflict that escalated into China’s attack on Vietnam in February and March 1979. China declared that the attack was a response to Vietnamese attacks on China. China claimed to have captured three of six provincial capitals in the bordering provinces of Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Lao Cai as well as seventeen cities and counties before announcing a withdrawal on 5 March. China announced that the withdrawal was completed by 16 March.

The normalization process between China and Vietnam began with low-level contacts in the mid-1980s and expanded to high-level meetings in early 1989. In early September 1990 a (then-secret) high-level meeting was held in China. Despite this meeting the normalization process lacked momentum on the political front. This situation prevailed until mid-1991, when the normalization process gained momentum. The increased diplomatic interaction paved the way for a high-level summit in early November 1991, when bilateral relations were officially fully normalized.

The full normalization of relations between China and Vietnam was made possible by the removal of the differences between the two countries regarding relations with the Soviet Union with the Sino-Soviet normalization of 1989 and by the formal resolution of the Cambodian conflict through the Paris agreements in October 1991, which removed two deeply dividing factors from the agenda.

Relations since 1991

After full normalization the relationship between China and Vietnam was characterized by two contradictory trends in the 1990s: expanding contacts and cooperation in many fields but tension relating to territorial disputes. The early 2000s have been characterized by continued expansion of relations and collaboration and by less tension relating to the territorial disputes as compared with the 1990s.

The positive trend in bilateral relations can be seen in the expanding political, cultural, economic, and military contacts between the two countries. Official delegations from one country regularly visit the other country to discuss ways of expanding relations in various fields. Increased economic ties since 1991 can be seen in bilateral trade, which grew from $32 million in 1991 to $1 billion in 1996 and from $10.42 billion in 2006 to $15.85 billion in 2007. The bilateral trade displays a steadily growing trade surplus for China. China has also provided loans and assistance to upgrade Chinese-built factories in northern Vietnam. In the political field the close relationship between the two ruling parties—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)—expanded through a steady stream of exchange visits at various levels. The contacts between the armed forces of the two countries have also expanded through regular exchange visits.

Sharp differences relating to all the territorial disputes (that is, overlapping claims to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, to water and continental shelf areas in the South China Sea and in the Gulf of Tonkin, and to areas along the land border) were prevalent from May to November 1992. Differences relating to oil exploration in the South China Sea and the signing of contracts with foreign companies for exploration were prevalent during parts of 1994, 1996, and 1997. During 1998 shorter periods of tension relating to the disputes occurred.

During 1999 talks focused on reaching a settlement of the land border dispute and resulted in the Land Border Treaty on 30 December 1999. This treaty was ratified in 2000, and the demarcation process is expected to be completed before the end of 2008. The border disputes created no significant tension during 1999. During 2000 the focus was on resolving the Gulf of Tonkin dispute and led to the Agreement on the Demarcation of Waters, Exclusive Economic Zones, and Continental Shelves in the Gulf of Tonkin on 25 December 2000. On the same day the two countries signed the Agreement on Fishery Cooperation in the Tonkin Gulf and the Regulations on Preservation and Management of the Living Resources in the Common Fishery Zone in the Gulf of Tonkin. The agreement on demarcation was ratified and entered into force in 2004 after the
completion of additional talks on supplementary protocol of the fishery agreement had been completed. The trend of no significant tension caused by the remaining border disputes in 1999 continued to prevail in 2000.

Since 2001 tensions relating to the disputes in the South China Sea have mainly been contained through talks at government and expert levels. However, official protests have been issued in response to a limited number of actions carried out in or in relation to the South China Sea area.

The Future

The future of relations between China and Vietnam will be determined by how successfully the two sides handle disputes. Deepening bilateral cooperation in different fields and expanding economic interaction have contributed to building a more stable bilateral relationship. The progress in managing the territorial disputes has also improved the prospect of long-term stability in the bilateral relationship.

Despite these positive developments the disputes in the South China Sea area remain a threat to a stable relationship both through the overlapping sovereignty claims to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes and the disputes over resources in maritime areas. Potential future challenges to bilateral relations include risks associated with economic competition and uneven trade relations as well as risks associated with developments affecting the Mekong River.

Further Reading

Amer, R. (1994). Sino-Vietnamese normalization in the light of the crisis of the late 1970s. Pacific Affairs, 67(3), 357–383.

Amer, R. (1999). Sino-Vietnamese relations: Past, present, and future. In C. A. Thayer & R. Amer (Eds.), Vietnamese foreign policy in transition (pp. 68–130). Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies; New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Amer, R. (2002). The Sino-Vietnamese approach to managing border disputes. Durham, U.K.: University of Durham, International Boundaries Research Unit.

Amer, R. (2004). Assessing Sino-Vietnamese relations through the management of contentious issues. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 26(2), 320–345.

Gilks, A. (1992). The breakdown of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance, 1970-1979. China Research Monograph No. 39.

Thayer, C. A. (1994). Sino-Vietnamese relations: The interplay of ideology and national interest. Asian Survey, 34(6), 513–528.

Womak, B. (1994). Sino-Vietnamese border trade: The edge of normalization. Asian Survey, 34(6), 495–512.

Womak, B. (2006). China and Vietnam: The politics of asymmetry. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Woodside, A. (1979). Nationalism and poverty in the breakdown of Sino-Vietnamese relations. Pacific Affairs, 52(3), 381–409.

Source: Amer, Ramses. (2009). Vietnam–China Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2394–2397. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Vietnam–China Relations (Yuè-Zh?ng wàiji?o gu?nxì ??????)|Yuè-Zh?ng wàiji?o gu?nxì ?????? (Vietnam–China Relations)

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