Vietnam, US Agree to Dance, if Not to Boogie

A wave of euphoria – there is no lesser word for it – swept over Vietnam last week, triggered by a collective perception that, yes, Hanoi and Washington have truly buried the hatchet, some 40 years after People's Army tanks rolled into Saigon, 20 years after the two nations reestablished diplomatic relations.

Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong had travelled to Washington at the head of a group of party leaders. He was received on July 7 and 8 with honor and evident warmth by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and a long list of lesser American officials and legislators.

There was minimal substance. One news analysis said that because Trong didn't bring home "significant military concessions at a time of dire strategic need," his trip was really a failure.

That misses the point. Vietnamese observers were entranced. It wasn't just that the US had seemingly acknowledged Vietnam's authoritarian Communist regime as a legitimate partner. Unsaid by the country's party-supervised media, there was even more powerful symbolism in the images of Trong and other stalwarts of what's been called – until now, at least – the “pro-China faction” of the regime agreeing that Washington and Hanoi are strategically aligned against Chinese aspirations to control the seas south from Hainan to very near Singapore.

The applause wasn't limited to party organs. Vietnamese get much of their news these days from blogs posted to the cybersphere. There, too, even prominent critics of the regime found reason to cheer, for the party-state had at last shown resolve to stand up to Chinese bullying.

Trong's trip is perceived in Vietnam as a breakout session for relations with Hanoi's onetime foe. That's entirely what diplomats on both sides hoped for, and for once the political constellations came into alignment. The key player was CPV General Secretary Trong. He is often dismissed as a lightweight, "the weakest party leader in memory," but on this occasion Trong lived up to his titular status as the Hanoi regime's numero uno.

Stunned, it's said, by China's decision to deploy an oil drilling rig and a flotilla of armed escort vessels into Vietnam's EEZ a year ago, Trong made his desire to visit Barack Obama in Washington known to the US Embassy.

No one in Hanoi could have been more aware than Trong of the message his trip would deliver to Beijing. The former head of the party's Central Ideology Institute has long been regarded as the chief curator of Vietnam's link to “the giant neighbor that's always there,” as China is known, and as the chief doubter that the US has permanent or regime-friendly interests in Vietnam's corner of Asia.

Top-level visits are always meticulously planned, this one particularly so. It took months to work out the details. For the Vietnamese side, the optics of an Oval Office encounter were paramount. Intent on bringing party conservatives into the emerging consensus on bilateral strategic cooperation, US diplomats were eager to oblige.

As Trung set off for Washington, editorial commentary in Chinese party newspapers signaled confidence that Vietnam was merely intent on developing trade ties with the US and – per the Global Times on July 8 – “speculations that Washington has managed to rope Hanoi into its elaborate scheme to preserve the US hegemonic presence in Asia in the face of an ascending China are childish and fallacious." Since then, remarkably, Beijing seems to be at a loss for words.

The lasting consequences of Trong's symbolic, historic journey may turn out to be less than imagined; that's often the case. However, optimism is pervasive in Vietnam.

Writing for a Vietnamese audience, Hoang Anh Tuan, the head of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs think tank, said this about the “true turning point” in US-Vietnam relations in a story published five days after the Trong-Obama Oval Office encounter.

There will be important consequences, Tuan believes: Obama's greeting Trong in the Oval Office showed political trust. The two leaders reviewed and endorsed real accomplishments in many areas of co-operation, including even discussion of human rights, a conversation that illuminated “the weaving together of US and Vietnamese interests on many matters.” There was deep discussion of core issues like the Trans-Pacific Trade pact and defense cooperation. Consensus was apparent on South China Sea security and sovereignty issues and their relationship to global prosperity and security. Vietnam and the US straightforwardly and openly discussed differences until now termed “sensitive” – e.g., religion, democracy and human rights.

After 20 years of diplomatic relations, Tuan argues, the Vietnam-US relationship has matured and is now able to comprehend differences – differences that are natural because political structures, the stage of development, culture and religion all differ. Dialogue, he says, will enlarge the area of agreement and move the relationship forward because there is now “mutual trust” between Hanoi and Washington. And the thing that most creates mutual trust, per Tuan, is that the US now also recognizes Vietnam's political structure, that is, it truly respects Vietnam's political choice.

Tuan is right on the symbolic weight of the Trong trip and, probably also right in his implicit conclusion that Hanoi has repositioned itself closer to Washington, at least for the duration of China's pursuit of hegemony over waters off Vietnam's 3,260 kilometer coastline. It's a popular move, one that resonates with the average politically aware Vietnamese and – as well – with his diasporic cousins in Orange County USA and Richmond, Australia. Of greater importance, it also resonates both inside and outside Vietnam's ruling party while the CPV heads into arguably its most important congress since 1991, which was the year that Hanoi and Washington began to fumble their way toward diplomatic relations.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive knowledge of Vietnam. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.