Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (3rd L) shakes hands with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the Party headquarters in Hanoi July 2, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Tri Dung/VNA
Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong will visit the US next week in a five-day landmark trip that is especially crucial at a time the two former foes increasingly need each other in the face of a rising China.
Trong, the first Vietnam’s Party chief to visit the US, will meet with President Barack Obama on July 7, the Vietnam Communist Party said on its website late Friday. He will also interact with other senators and businesspeople in different functions.
The two leaders will discuss ways to flesh out the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership in the spirit of the 20th anniversary of normalized relations, the White House said in a statement Friday.
Other issues, including the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, human rights, and bilateral defense cooperation, are also on top of the agenda.
Trong’s US visit is taking place against the backdrop of rocky Vietnamese-Sino ties.
On May 2 of last year, China's deployment of a giant oil rig into Vietnamese waters triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels from both countries. China withdrew the rig in mid-July.
Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties by exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits. Trong called on China in April, when the two countries pledged to settle disagreement for their interests and the international community.
But just last week, China towed the infamous oil rig closer to Vietnam's coast in the flashpoint East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
The rig appeared to be in an area where the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam and China overlap, but further away than last year, Reuters reported.
Also last week, Vietnam said China has increasingly mistreated its fishermen in the East Sea and demanded that Beijing halt its massive land reclamation projects in the Spratly island chain that has been underway over the past two years.
China has just simply snubbed such allegations, saying it is wrapping up the island building and will follow up with developing infrastructure for military and civilian purposes.
It is not hard to understand why China was upping the ante ahead of Trong’s visit to the US, analysts say.
“China is meant to send a message: Don’t go too far. We have many tools to make your life miserable,” Zachary Abuza, a US-based analyst, told Thanh Nien News.
The US has always tried to reassure Asia that it is a vocal critic of China’s claim to the East Sea. But the best it has done so far is to largely wage wars of words against Beijing.
Trong told a group of Western journalists on Friday that Vietnam “appreciates” statements from the US backing a peaceful approach to settling disputes between claimant states to the strategically important and resource-rich East Sea.
“I hope that the US will continue to have appropriate voice and actions to contribute to peaceful settlement of disputes in the East Sea in accordance with international law,” he was quoted by Bloomberg as saying.
As part of an $18 million military aid package, the US is providing Vietnam with six patrol boats. In a largely symbolic move last year, Washington partially lifted a ban on the sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Hanoi has urge that Washington totally remove the ban in the future.
It is in this context that the Party chief is apparently all set to cement an increased commitment from Washington during his upcoming visit.
“The Vietnamese really want to get assurances that the Asia pivot is going to be permanent, not just the Obama’s policy,” Abuza said.
“Whoever gets elected, they will remain committed to that policy. If they cannot get that assurance, there is no sense in trying to balance China,” he said.
“The Vietnamese are very clear: They won’t join any alliance against China. Their policy is really based on America being proactive in the region.”
Bilateral trade between the countries soared to $36 billion last year from $451 million in 1995, Bloomberg reported, citing the US Census Bureau.
Despite China’s shadow, Trong may have something to sell to America during his visit: many of his fellowmen throw strong support behind the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama has battled tooth and nail to push through Congress.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that just two percent of Vietnamese think that the controversial pact, which critics say would purge developing countries including Vietnam of affordable access to life-saving drugs, will be a bad thing for their country. On the other hand, 89 percent back the agreement, which also envisages granting corporations the right to sue a foreign government.
Analysts say the TPP is being sold as a counter to China's domination and although the extent to which it will hurt China is unknown, the recent events have created an environment in which anything that hurts China is interpreted as being good.
“This is not a military alliance. It’s a soft alliance,” said Mart Stewart, a professor of history at the Western Washington University.
“Leaders in Vietnam don’t want any alliance with any great power that is going to back them into the corner.” he said.
“They don’t want to do anything to make the Chinese too mad. Vietnam has to be smarter than both the US and China [in striking a balance between the two superpowers].”
A number of American Congressmen have exerted pressure on Obama not to sign the TPP unless Vietnam improves its human rights record.
Ironically, it is the US that threatens to turn traitor to its own seemingly lofty cause, given that the TPP is poised to benefit and protect the profits of medical and pharmaceutical corporations at the expense of public health.
“Human rights is just an convenient tool they have to resist the president,” Abuza said of the annoying habit of the American Congressmen.
“I don’t think Congress has changed their point of view in the Cold War. They don’t want to appreciate the reforms Vietnam has made on this matter,” he said.
“Never underestimate the stupidity of the [American] politicians.”