Chinese president Hu Jintao visits Vietnam to discuss economic ties

Chinese President Hu Jintao is visiting Vietnam this week in an effort to expand already booming trade ties between the two communist neighbors as Vietnam looks to China as a model for its economic development.

Hu departed China on Monday and was due to arrive later in the day in Vietnam where he planned to meet with leaders. On Tuesday, he was expected to address parliament, a rare honor for a foreign leader. The two countries have maintained regular high-level visits since their normalization of relations in 1991.

"It's getting closer, it's normalizing, but nothing extraordinary," said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "I don't think that ideology is the motivating force, but it's the glue that binds them."

Thayer said Vietnam is looking carefully at China's growth model, since its northern neighbor launched economic reforms in the late 1970s nearly a decade before Vietnam. In a front-page editorial, Vietnam's official Communist Party newspaper Nhan Dan (People) said the visit would further promote ties between the neighbors.

"We are pleased to see that cooperation and friendship between Vietnam and China have developed rapidly both in depth and in width in all fields," it said. "The high level meetings that are maintained every year are important and significant in defining the direction of bilateral relations' development and enhancing mutual trust."

China expressed similar sentiments.

"We are satisfied with the good momentum of development of China-Vietnam relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Quan Kong said last week in Beijing.

"Good relations with Vietnam serve the interests of both countries," he said. "This visit will help strengthen our bilateral ties, deepen and broaden relations between the two countries and raise relations to a new height."

The visit comes at a time when the two, among the world's few remaining communist nations, have seen rapid growth in their trade and economic cooperation and are looking to expand their relationship into other fields, including the military. China last year emerged as Vietnam's largest trading partner with bilateral trade reaching US$7.2 billion, up nearly 50 percent from the year before, according to the Ministry of Trade. The two countries want to double their trade volume over the next five years. China was Vietnam's 14th largest foreign investor, with the investment of US$710 million in 346 projects.

Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra visited China last week and the two sides signed an agreement on joint navy patrolling in the Gulf of Tonkin.

During the visit, his Chinese counterpart, Cao Gangchuan, expressed hopes that they can have closer military exchanges in the future. Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy said Vietnam has agreed to accept military training from its former adversary, the United States, and may seek a similar arrangement with China.

As Hanoi and Washington move closer on many issues, China will likely work to ensure a balance, he said.

"China has to figure out where Vietnam is going, make sure that they offer the right incentives to prevent Vietnam from veering too far in the direction of the United States," Thayer said, adding that the stakes will likely increase next year when U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to visit Hanoi for the 21-member APEC forum, reports the AP. I.L.