China’s reaction to an American aircraft carrier’s first ever visit to Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War has been deliberately muted. China has downplayed the significance of the USS Carl Vinson visit to Danang by regarding it as part of any normal exchange and cooperation including in the military field between two sovereign countries, i.e. the United States and Vietnam. Nevertheless, China has urged the United States and Vietnam to ensure that such exchanges would contribute to regional peace and stability in a positive and constructive way rather than injecting any unsettling elements.
China’s muted response differs from its earlier firmer reaction to US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. When USS Hopper, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed Scarborough Shoal in January 2018, Beijing accused the United States of violating China’s sovereignty and security interests, and threatened to take necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty. Clearly, China regarded this intrusion as a matter of sovereignty, different from the USS Carl Vinson visit to Danang.
On the foreign policy front, there are more important and pressing issues for China to grapple with relating to its relations with the United States and it does not want to create another issue. Foremost among them is the Taiwan issue which China regards as the foundation of US-China relations. Both houses of the US Congress have unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act that encourages visits between US and Taiwanese officials at all levels. Sometime in 2018, the American Institute in Taiwan is expected to officially open its new premises where US marines could be deployed for the first time as per the norm in US overseas embassies. China is firmly opposed to the United States elevating its ties with Taiwan.
Another is trade relations with the United States. On this front, the United States appears to be hardening its position. In early March 2018, President Trump announced that he will impose hefty tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from other countries including China. The announcement was made when Liu He, President Xi’s point man on financial and economic matters, was in the United States. Furthermore, Liu He, who is also a political bureau member, did not meet with President Trump. In contrast, when Chinese State Councillor and Political Bureau member Yang Jiechi visited the United States in February, he called on President Trump at the White House. Obviously, the United States wants China to do more to curb “cheap imports” into America and for China to further liberalise its domestic market to US businesses.
The situation on the Korean peninsula is another issue of greater importance to China. China seeks to work with the United States to pursue a denuclearised North Korea although they differ in their approaches. With the respite in inter-Korea tensions arising from the just-concluded Winter Olympics, China has urged the United States to ride on the positive momentum to pursue dialogue with North Korea. China wants a stable North Korea as the two countries share a common border.
China is of the view that Vietnam will continue its omnidirectional foreign policy despite the growing US-Vietnam military and defence ties. It is possible that China’s own aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, could visit Danang at some future point. This would mark a logical progression from earlier visits by Chinese naval vessels such as its naval escort task force when they docked at Cam Ranh Bay International Port in October 2016 after their anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared in ISEAS Commentaries and can be read at http://bit.ly/2p39Lkc.