By Phuong Nguyen
When Communist Party of Vietnam general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong begins his high-profile visit to China on April 7, he will face the colossal task of getting Vietnam’s relations with both China and the United States right. The significance of the trip extends far beyond that of a normal bilateral visit and will be closely watched by Washington, which Trong is expected to visit later this year.
The conventional wisdom is that Vietnamese leaders often seek to visit Beijing before traveling to Washington in order to reassure Chinese leaders. But in this case, Trong’s visit almost did not happen. President Xi Jinping only extended an official invitation to his Vietnamese counterpart when it became clear that Trong would visit Washington.
Relations between China and Vietnam, which were once brotherly if sometimes tense, have shifted since China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed waters in mid-2014. Beijing last year avoided granting Trong and other senior Vietnamese leaders audiences with Xi, despite Hanoi’s efforts to look for channels to help resolve the dangerous standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese forces over the rig.
During the few exchanges between the two countries’ officials in the past 10 months, Chinese diplomats have taken to calling on Vietnam not to use “megaphone diplomacy” and urged bilateral ties to stay on the correct path – interpreted to mean a path preferred by China. Even Communist Party stalwarts in Hanoi have become disillusioned with China’s attitude toward Vietnam and its other smaller neighbors.
Chinese leaders will likely seek to use this week-long visit to gauge Trong’s inclination to preserve, or deepen, the depth of party-to-party ties, and more importantly, his appetite for stronger relations with the United States. U.S.-Vietnam relations have been on an upward trajectory in recent years, but fears that the United States hopes to plant the seeds of peaceful political evolution in Vietnam are alive and well within the Communist Party’s top leadership. There is little doubt Beijing will attempt to validate these fears during Trong’s trip.
While the visit to Beijing is happening on short notice, it has the potential to change the dynamics of Trong’s planned visit to the United States. Hanoi pushed for Trong’s visit to Washington for at least a year, and Secretary of State John Kerry finally acquiesced to the request during a phone call with his Vietnamese counterpart in February. But U.S. officials remain unsure whether Vietnam’s party chief can deliver anything of added value, whether economically or militarily, to the United States.
Presidents Barack Obama and Truong Tan Sang already upgraded U.S.-Vietnam relations to a comprehensive partnership in 2013, and officials on both sides are working on a number of landmark initiatives to commemorate the 20th anniversary of normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations this year, including plans for Obama to visit Vietnam in late 2015. Meanwhile, high-level engagement has been taking place to overcome outstanding issues related to Vietnam in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, and to build on the foundation of military-to-military cooperation.
Officials in Washington are still debating how Trong should be received in terms of protocol, and whether he will meet with Obama. Trong is officially only the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, not of the government or state. As such, U.S. officials have said they might have difficulty finding a counterpart in the United States who could host Trong appropriately.
But since Beijing will likely dole out a red-carpet treatment for Trong, Washington may reconsider the optics of allowing Vietnam’s party chief, who in principle holds the highest position in the country’s political system, to visit the U.S. capital with little fanfare or walk away from the trip with few notable results. Those in Hanoi pressing for closer U.S.-Vietnam relations have long said a meeting between Obama and Trong will be of paramount importance going forward, while helping to alleviate what some describe as the “America syndrome” among senior Vietnamese party officials.
Trong’s visit to China ahead of his U.S. trip will not tamp down Hanoi’s enthusiasm for engaging with the United States. Vietnam’s leaders are plugged into the strategic reality of the region and will continue to advance ties with the United States when and where it serves their country’s interests. The timing of Trong’s visit to China actually raises the bar of expectations for his visit to Washington. Since Hanoi is under pressure to demonstrate, both to foreign partners and the domestic audience, that it maintains an independent foreign policy, the onus will be on Trong to prove that his Washington trip will be just as, if not more, productive than his visit to Beijing.
Both the United States and Vietnam now have an interest in making sure that Trong’s visit to Washington will be accorded high importance and serve the long-term purpose of furthering U.S.-Vietnam ties. U.S. officials should be careful not to regard the visit as merely a photo op carried out at Vietnam’s request, while Hanoi needs to come forward with what it believes Trong can deliver during the trip.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.