By: David Brown

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.