By Murray Hiebert —
As secretary of state-designate Rex Tillerson prepares to testify in his Senate confirmation hearings on January 11, his predecessor John Kerry will be departing Washington for his farewell visit to Vietnam. The visit has not yet been announced by the State Department, but it has been confirmed by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
In a sign that Hanoi continues to hedge its ties in the region, several top Vietnamese leaders will be visiting Beijing when Kerry has meetings in Hanoi on January 14. The leaders visiting China this week include Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. Instead of meeting the party chief, Kerry will meet politiburo member and assumed Trong successor, Dinh The Huynh, who visited Washington last year, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Vietnam’s relations with China have been strained since 2009, sometimes near to the breaking point, because of China’s more assertive policies in the South China Sea, where the two communist neighbors have overlapping claims. The Obama administration’s Asia rebalance policy provided Vietnam a balancing opportunity in the face of Chinese pressure.
Trong’s China trip can be viewed as an effort by Vietnam’s communist leaders to carefully balance their ties in the face of uncertainty about the incoming U.S. administration’s policies toward Asia. As a result, Hanoi has been busy trying to find ways to expand and broaden its relations, particularly in Asia, in recent months. Right after Trong returns from Beijing, Hanoi will host Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on an official visit.
Kerry, who played a critical role in the normalization of U.S. diplomatic relations with Vietnam in first half of the 1990s, is expected to visit Hanoi, Cam Ranh Bay, and the Mekong delta, where he served during the Vietnam War. U.S.-Vietnam relations reached a number of important milestones during Kerry’s stint as secretary of state: the two countries agreed to establish a comprehensive partnership, Washington lifted sanctions against U.S. military sales to Vietnam, and the United States stepped up its assistance to help Hanoi boost its maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea. The Unites States increased aid to help Vietnam tackle climate change in the lower Mekong and Kerry played a leading role in getting funding and authorization to open Fulbright University, the country’s first private university with academic independence, in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnamese officials have been concerned about growing opposition in the United States to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement under which Vietnam would have been the biggest beneficiary from increased access to U.S. and Japanese markets. Hanoi viewed the TPP as a vehicle to balance its heavy economic dependence on China.
Like Kerry, Tillerson comes to office with some experience in Vietnam dating back to 2009 when ExxonMobil, the company he headed until recently, signed an agreement with Hanoi to drill for natural gas in an offshore block partially claimed by China. Beijing protested the deal with ExxonMobil and with the U.S. government. In 2014, China moved a giant oil-rig into an area near the ExxonMobil block in a move that severely strained Beijing’s relations with its smaller communist neighbor.
Vietnamese officials say they feel somewhat reassured by Prime Minister Phuc’s recent reportedly positive telephone conversation with President-elect Trump. Hanoi officials say they are hopeful that strong U.S. ties with Asia, including Southeast Asia, will continue under the new administration. They have also felt reassured that Trump’s comments about China in the wake of his phone call with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen suggest the incoming administration will take a fairly tough stance toward Beijing.
Despite the fact that U.S.-Vietnam relations improved dramatically under the Obama administration, Hanoi had to wait until the president’s final months in office for Obama to visit Vietnam. Vietnamese officials hope their country will be one of the first in Southeast Asia that Trump visits when they host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang in November (around the same time that the Philippines hosts the East Asia Summit). Hanoi also would welcome an invitation for Prime Minister Phuc, who assumed his post in early 2016, to visit Washington this year.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.