• Bloomberg, Reuters

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China has played down this week’s U.S. decision to lift a decades-old ban on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam as it looks to avoid aggravating relations already strained by territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his desire to begin a new era of closer economic and military ties with Vietnam, the vice foreign ministers of China and Vietnam met in a Chinese border province to discuss their relationship.

“China and Vietnam are friendly neighbors connected by mountains and rivers,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a news conference Tuesday. China, Hua said, is willing to work with Vietnam to implement a range of legal agreements “to elevate boundary management and cooperation.”

The discreet meeting between the vice ministers suggests that Beijing is eager to reassure the Vietnamese that the two communist nations should put their shared interests above their dispute over who owns what in the South China Sea, especially as the Obama administration further pivots the U.S. toward Asia and offers more support to Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries that are concerned about China’s expansion.

Commenting on the U.S. decision to lift its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, Hua said repeatedly Tuesday that China welcomed “the development of a normal relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam” and expressed hope that it would be conducive to regional peace and stability.

Such a measured response represents progress diplomatically, said Zhang Mingliang, a professor at the Southeast Asia Research Institute at Jinan University in Guangzhou, but the prospect of a strong U.S.-Vietnamese partnership would be even more worrying to Beijing than the U.S. alliance with the Philippines.

“The public gesture doesn’t represent the reality of how Beijing sees the firming-up of the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship,” said Zhang. “Vietnam has stronger experience in confronting the Chinese. They have a greater inherent alertness and know their opponents better. Vietnam is strategically more important in countering China’s assertiveness in the region. The Americans are now fully exploring this advantage.”

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said on Wednesday his country is not pursuing a military buildup over the South China Sea and will work with allies to seek peaceful solutions to disputes.

Speaking in a rare interview with some foreign journalists, Phuc said the South China Sea dynamic has grown in complexity, and Vietnam needs regional friends and strategic partners to ensure harmony and avoid any disruption to maritime trade.

“Vietnam does not pursue military buildup, but Vietnam pursues protecting our sovereignty, firstly with peaceful measures, diplomatic measures and even justice measures,” Phuc said.

Phuc made no reference to China during the interview, and it was unclear what he meant when he used the word “justice” as a means of preserving Vietnam’s sovereignty claims.

He took office last month and is a member of a leadership triumvirate that has the difficult task of maintaining the Communist Party’s close ties with the Chinese party while also standing up to Beijing’s maritime assertiveness.

Despite the U.S. weapons ban, arms imports to Vietnam rose sevenfold from 2011 to 2015, making it the world’s eighth-largest arms importer, according to data on international arms transfers in a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

“China continues to expand its military capabilities with imported and domestically produced weapons,” said senior SIPRI researcher Siemon Wezeman in the report. “Neighboring states such as India, Vietnam and Japan are also significantly strengthening their military forces.”

And while Vietnam relies on China for trade, that could change if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal wins congressional approval in the U.S. According to estimates by the Peterson Institute in Washington, the TPP will increase Vietnam’s GDP by 8.1 percent by 2030. The impact for China will be flat as it loses some of its markets to Vietnam.

Occupied by China for centuries, with Chinese culture and language once dominant among the Vietnamese elite, Vietnam and China share a complex history. Vietnam’s early heroes forged their reputations battling the Chinese. Conversely, many modern Chinese generals made their names fighting the Vietnamese in a 1974 clash near the disputed Paracel Islands and a bloody border war in 1979 over Cambodia.

Relations were further tested in 2014 when China placed a deep-sea exploration rig off the Vietnamese coast in an area of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. That action prompted several clashes at sea and sparked widespread protests in Vietnam.

The China National Petroleum Corp., which owns the billion-dollar oil rig, later decided to relocate the project to an area closer to Hainan province in undisputed Chinese waters.

Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Vietnamese National Assembly with a warm-hearted speech that emphasized how the two countries’ socialist systems should help them remain partners. “We must trust and help each other to move forward together, not letting anybody hinder our steps or shake our systems,” Xi said at the time.

Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said China recognizes that despite closer ties between Vietnam and the U.S., Vietnam also wants to maintain decent ties with Beijing.

“Beijing’s assessment is that there will be limitation to Vietnam-U.S. cooperation,” Zhang said. “Vietnam’s top leaders, including the general secretary of the ruling party, the president, the prime minister and the speaker of congress, take turns visiting Beijing. This does not mean they like the Chinese. It’s quite the opposite. But it shows Vietnam’s practical mindset that it understands that it cannot wish China, a rising superpower, away.”

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