I was asked to provide some comments on the significance of Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming White House visit. Here are some preliminary thoughts, with more thoughtful thoughts to follow:
Secretary Trong’s visit is clearly a milestone in Vietnam-US relations. While there has been great emphasis on the visit’s symbolism, particularly given Trong’s status as the party secretary, it is now important to appreciate the very practical and substantive way in which the two countries’ strategic interests are converging across a number of core issues, including trade and investment and regional security.
Former President Clinton’s role, past and present, should not be understated. The fact that the President invited General Secretary Trong to visit his home suggests real efforts are underway (if not a full scale ‘charm offensive’) at deepening mutual understandings between key US the Vietnamese political elites.
Although Vietnam and the United States are both set for leadership changes in the next year, it is clear that the the two states’ short, medium, and long term interests are converging in unprecedented ways. In addition to the TPP and greater security cooperation, one can expect Trong’s visit to add momentum to a process of broadening and deepening of ties and to pave the way for concrete progress on ongoing projects and a host of fresh initiatives across a variety of fields.
If Trong and Hanoi can not just promise but deliver additional progress on rights, relations between the two countries could improve well beyond what is seen as possible today. Trong is not typically regarded as among Vietnam’s visionary leaders. Yet given the broader context, conditions for successful visit are strikingly clear. Whether or not the visit will generate historic breakthroughs remains to be seen.