By Nguyen Manh Hung —
Dinh The Huynh begins his first visit to the United States on October 23 as the newly elected permanent secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). As the second highest-ranking leader of the CPV and a candidate to succeed General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong when he chooses to step down within two years as expected, Huynh is a valuable interlocutor for Washington.
For years, diplomatic protocol prevented visits to the United States of CPV leaders in a political system where “the party leads, the state manages.” The triumph of practical considerations over protocol led to the ice-breaking visit to Washington of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong two years ago. Vietnam’s chief ideologue made two important statements on that visit: Vietnam would do everything possible to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and that the United States was the “utmost important area of operations of Vietnam’s foreign policy.”
Huynh’s visit may also be seen as part of Vietnam’s delicate balancing act among the major powers. As a small country living next to a big neighbor with regional and global ambitions, Vietnam has to accommodate China, but not to the point of losing its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is only natural for Hanoi to cultivate relations with other major powers that have the capacity and willingness to serve as a counterweight to China.
Vietnam has to balance its need for diplomatic flexibility with its need not to antagonize China, and the foreign visits of Vietnamese leaders are calibrated for that purpose. In the past, Vietnamese leaders’ visits to the United States were always preceded or followed (or both) by their visits to China.
After the CPV Congress in January, Vietnam began to send its new leaders to visit important countries in a well-calibrated manner. Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited China in August and September, respectively. President Tran Dai Quang visited Singapore, a small but strategically important ASEAN member where he introduced the concept of “supplementary principles” to ASEAN’s consensus principle that has frequently paralyzed ASEAN decisions over the South China Sea issue.
Permanent Secretary Huynh’s visit to the United States is sandwiched between two notable events: the kick off of the 7th naval engagement activities between the United States and Vietnam in Danang in late September (followed by a visit to the strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay by two U.S. warships in early October) and Huynh’s visit to China from October 19-21, before arriving in the United States for a longer trip from October 23-31.
Before Huynh’s foreign visits, Vice Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh made a strong statement during his meeting with visiting U.S. deputy assistant defence secretary Cara Abercrombie that “Vietnam welcomes the U.S. and other partners to intervene in the region as long as it bring peace, stability, and prosperity.”
Huynh’s visit coincides with a number of unsettling events affecting the strategic positions of both the United States and Vietnam: the unpredictable politics of the United States over ratification of the TPP, China’s strong reaction to the July ruling of the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines, and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s tilt toward China, his country’s “separation” from the United States, and the uncertain future of the U.S.-Philippines military alliance.
In this context, Huynh will want assurances about the future of the TPP and the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, particularly about the depth of Washington’s commitment and staying power. The United States, in turn, will want to know about Vietnam’s position and plans for the future of the TPP and ASEAN in the wake of the Philippine’s apparent radically changing policy. It is in the interest of both countries to discuss what they can do together to cope with the rapidly changing situation in the Asia Pacific. Meaningful cooperation between the two countries depends on answers to those questions.
In response to Vietnam’s concern about possible U.S. “peaceful evolution” goals, the United States, in both word and deed (appropriate protocols for visiting CPV leaders) has demonstrated its respect for Vietnam’s political system. In turn, Washington should not shrink from exploring Huynh’s thinking about human rights and workers’ rights issues. Mutual understanding and trust on these issues serve as a solid foundation for U.S.-Vietnam effective and long-term cooperation.