(Bloomberg) -- To understand the challenges Xi Jinping faces in assuming greater leadership in world affairs, look no further than the Chinese president’s travels through his own backyard this week.
Over five days in Vietnam and Laos, Xi played two seemingly disparate roles: defender of global commerce and torchbearer for international communism. While the trip presented China as an alternative to a more inward-looking U.S., it also showed the region’s ambivalence to embrace Beijing’s worldview.
While landlocked Laos has much to gain from Xi’s Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative, Vietnam has been suspicious that China will use its growing economic and military might to assert more control over disputed territory in the South China Sea. Before hosting Xi in Hanoi, Vietnam’s leaders discussed weapons sales with U.S. President Donald Trump, and joined with Australia and Japan to resurrect a Pacific trade pact that excludes China.
Even so, Vietnam has little choice but to hedge its bets, particularly after Trump withdrew the U.S. from a Pacific trade pact seen as countering China’s influence. China is by far Vietnam’s largest trading partner.
“Countries like India and Japan and Vietnam have clear concerns and skepticism,” said Ha Hoang Hop, visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Countries such as Laos, which is receiving economic support from China, are very happy to accept Chinese influence.”
In Hanoi, residents have been particularly open about their disdain for China, which in 1979 fought a brief border war with Vietnam in a dispute over Laos. A Pew opinion poll released earlier this year found just 10 percent Vietnamese view China favorably, compared with 84 percent for the United States.
‘Welcoming an Invader’
“We don’t like China, since they’ve always wanted to take over, control our country,” said Nguyen Sang, 29, who works in a souvenir shop on Hanoi’s Trang Tien Street. “That makes us mad.”
One local Facebook user named Sang Vu complained, “Vietnamese leaders are happy welcoming an invader to our home.”
Such sentiments complicate Xi’s pledge last month to make China a great power by 2050, while its state-led development model “blazes a new trail” for the globe. Vietnam and Laos -- two of the world’s five remaining communist states -- make attractive proving grounds for that vision, since they have both followed China lead in accepting capitalist elements into their economies.
Xi’s trip -- his first since securing a second term last month -- highlighted shared ideological interests along with economic ties. He hailed Laos as “good neighbors, friends, comrades and partners” in a statement upon his arrival Tuesday in the capital Vientiane.
‘Forged in Blood’
In Hanoi, Xi told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on Monday that the differences between the two neighbors needed to be “controlled” and “managed properly,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. In a scene that could have taken place in Beijing, hundreds of red armband-clad security guards lined the route of Xi’s black Mercedes as it sped the communist leader through the streets of the Vietnamese capital.
Xi also laid a wreath at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the country’s revolutionary founder lies embalmed. He said the two nations’ ties were “forged in blood” by older generations, in an editorial published in Nhan Dan, the official newspaper of Vietnam’s Communist Party.
While Xi was referencing China’s support for Ho during his war with the U.S., many Vietnamese trace their animosity back hundreds of years to when Chinese emperors ruled over the area as part of a network of tribute states.
Near the Chinese Embassy, the scene of anti-China protests in recent years, police keep barricades in a park across the street near a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Posters around the embassy touted China’s economic prowess: its indigenous C919 passenger jet, high-speed trains and commercial delivery drones.
“Psychologically, there may be some suspicions of China’s intentions, but the reality is that they need to work with China,” said Wang Yiwei, director of Renmin University’s Institute of International Affairs in Beijing. “The United States cannot match China in infrastructure.”
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