From July 6 to July 10, the United States will host the first-ever visit by a Communist Party chief from Vietnam. When President Barack Obama meets with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the White House on July 7, the two leaders will take a major step forward in the quiet yet profound shift that is changing the game both in the U.S.-China-Vietnam triangle and in Vietnam’s domestic politics.
According to Vietnamese sources, the visit is expected to result in a “joint vision statement” that will upgrade Washington and Hanoi’s two-year old “comprehensive partnership” to an “extensive comprehensive partnership.” While this new label falls short of the “strategic partnership” that both sides have been seeking for years, the spirit Trong’s trip conveys and the level of mutual trust it reflects will elevate U.S.-Vietnam ties to a new plateau, one where an informal strategic alliance is not just theoretically imaginable but politically possible.
The significance of Trong’s visit lies more in what it means than in what it says. For the United States, it means that the strategic gains from a close and strong relationship with Vietnam have outweighed the strategic costs of provoking China and the political costs of befriending a communist regime.
For Vietnam, the trip will boost the communist regime’s legitimacy, but at the same time, the friendship with America will have political and strategic ramifications. It will affect the balance of power among the country’s elites in favor of the reformers at the expense of the conservatives, and it will irritate China. Trong’s trip means that the reformers are on the rise and the conservatives in decline. It also means that Hanoi has reached the limits of its engagement with Beijing and is now trying to reach out to Washington to broaden its options.