Vietnam Party Chief’s Historic Visit to Washington: Establishing Strategic Trust

by  • July 3, 2015

By Ernest Z. Bower & Phuong Nguyen

General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong meeting with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in Hanoi, Vietnam on June 1, 2015. Source: Secretary of Defense's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

CSIS – The general-secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong on July 7 will meet with President Barack Obama as the two leaders strive to establish strategic trust, the requisite foundation for the relationship to move to the next level. The visit is unprecedented in the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Unlike his Chinese counterpart, who is both communist party chief and president, Trong does not hold an official position within the government. Yet he is the highest-ranking political leader in the Vietnamese system.

No Vietnamese party chief has ever met a sitting U.S. president since Washington and Hanoi normalized relations twenty years ago – a fact not lost on Vietnam’s leadership – even as the two countries continue to deepen every aspect of their partnership. As such, the most important deliverable of Trong’s visit is establishing trust and mutual respect at the top levels in both countries.

Securing the trip and establishing protocols both sides find appropriate has been no small task. The prominence with which Washington is expected to accord the visit speaks to a new depth in U.S.-Vietnam relations and the fact that the U.S. government increasingly views Vietnam as a leading strategic thinker, willing to think and act based on the dynamic geopolitics of the region.

Obama and Trong are expected to take on the most important defense and economic issues in bilateral U.S.-Vietnam relations, and affirm the role that the U.S.-Vietnam partnership will play in the fast-changing Asia-Pacific region.

In July 2013, Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang agreed to open a new phase of bilateral relations during Sang’s visit to Washington. They launched a comprehensive partnership, and issued a joint statement to serve as a guiding compass for the newly elevated relationship.

The statement committed the United States and Vietnam to, among other things, making trade and economic ties the cornerstone of U.S.-Vietnam relations, concluding negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, continuing to cooperate on defense and security in the spirit of a memorandum of understanding signed between the two militaries in 2011, and ensuring the importance of the promotion of human rights in the bilateral relationship.

To be sure, the relationship has had its share of challenges, not least due to human rights issues. Yet due to a confluence of shared strategic interests, and perhaps to their own surprises, Washington and Hanoi have in the past two years knocked many of these goals out of the park. Vietnam last year became the largest U.S. trading partner within ASEAN; and with Trade Promotion Authority having been signed into law, Vietnam and the United States are now closer to completing negotiations on the TPP with 10 other countries.

U.S. and Vietnamese officials in late May inked a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations during Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to Vietnam, which will expand the scope of bilateral military relations into new areas of cooperation, including defense trade, greater joint operations between the two navies, global peacekeeping, and future co-production.

In particular, Vietnam has since 2013 ratified UN conventions against torture and on the rights of persons with disabilities – both at the request of the United States – and released a number of high-profile political prisoners. It is expected to accede to the high labor standards of the TPP once the agreement is completed, and grant workers freedom of association at least at the factory level.

Trong and Obama should seize this visit to update the frameworks of the comprehensive partnership, and discuss a joint vision for U.S.-Vietnam relations over the coming decade – economically, politically, militarily, and beyond – that will align with the regional strategic interests of both sides.

According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes & Trends study released last month, 89 percent of Vietnamese surveyed support the TPP agreement and 71 percent welcome an increased U.S. military presence in Asia, the highest level of support among all countries surveyed. These numbers are even more compelling considering this year is only the 20th anniversary of normalization of relations and the 40th anniversary of the end of the U.S.-Vietnam war.

While a grand vision is necessary, more concrete actions are also in order as the two leaders meet. Trong and Obama will need to display political leadership to resolve some of the most poignant remaining bilateral issues in the TPP. These include, but are not limited to, market access for Vietnam’s apparel and footwear imports to the U.S. market, Vietnam’s action plan for meeting the TPP’s rules of origin requirement and other legal benchmarks, as well as addressing protectionist policies toward seafood imports from Vietnam.

On the security front, the two leaders are likely to endorse the recently signed joint vision statement on defense relations at the highest level. During the visit, many in Washington will look for signs of seriousness from the Vietnamese about forging a defense trade relationship and opening the door for greater U.S. naval access to Vietnamese ports in the future.

This is all the more important given China has redeployed its infamous oil drilling rig to overlapping waters in the Tonkin Gulf claimed by both China and Vietnam just days before Trong’s visit to the United States. Many analysts believe the move was Beijing’s warning to Hanoi against getting too close with Washington. As China and Vietnam are in the process of demarcating this area, there is little Hanoi can do about the rig’s presence.

But Beijing’s latest action will only give Trong’s visit added importance. Vietnam’s top leader is now in a position of having to show even greater determination to pursue actions that will best serve Vietnam’s strategic autonomy, which in this case mean greater engagement with the United States. Hanoi has gone to great lengths to ensure the trip’s success, and Beijing should not expect it to relent as a result of Chinese pressure.

Political timing is vital, as Vietnam is moving toward its Party Congress to be held in the first months of 2016. China’s aggressive actions may isolate elements within the Communist Party of Vietnam who have been supportive of moving even closer to China. A good visit to Washington will also strengthen the hand of pragmatic Party members seeking to promote the country’s national security.

At the same time, it is important to understand that U.S.-Vietnam relations are not defined by China or the South China Sea issue. The United States-Vietnam relationship is intrinsically valuable to both countries. The two nations have become and will become even more important trading, economic, and security partners. They share a common perspective that a stronger ASEAN is vital to building an effective regional economic and security architecture.

Vietnam understands that it needs to continue engaging with China while simultaneously pushing back against Chinese expansionism in the region. Trong’s visit could open a vital channel for Hanoi to pursue this long-term strategy, while fortifying both U.S. hard and soft power in Vietnam.

Mr. Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and holds the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studiesat CSIS. Follow him on twitter @BowerCSIS. Ms. Phuong Nguyen is a Research Associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.