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Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General to Visit the United States By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0064/ 2015

It now seems fairly certain that the Secretary General of the Vietnam CommunistParty, Nguyen Phu Trong, will visit the United States this year. This news has been confirmed publicly by Vietnam’s Ambassador in Washington, Pham Quanh Vinh.We request your assessment of the following:

Q1. How do you view the planned visit of Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to theU.S.? What is the significance of this event?

ANSWER: The significance of Secretary General Trong’s visit to the U.S. is that he will be received at high-level even though in protocol terms he is not the head of state or government. It is a recognition by the United States of the important role of the party Secretary General in Vietnam’s political system Secretary General Trong’s visit is important for three reasons: it will follow his meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping, it will take place during the twentieth anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam normalization, and it will take place as the Vietnam Communist Party prepaeres for its 12th national party congress.

Q2. What results can be expected from Secretary General Trong’s meetings with President Barack Obama and other senior Administration officials?

ANSWER: Bilateral relations between Vietnam and the United States are conducted under framework of the Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership. Both sides will discuss strategic as well as bilateral issues. Both sides will share views on China, the South China Sea and other issues; this is important for mutual understanding. Both sides will discuss how they can advance the Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership by identifying priority areas and set targets for the future. Two key issues provide opportunities for the future: the conclusion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) and reaching agreement on a visit to Hanoi by President Barack Obama.

Q3. Do you think Vietnam and the U.S. will reach new agreements on this occasion?

ANSWER: It depends on who accompanies Secretary General Trong. Agreements are usually reached between government ministers, state institutions or by private sector representatives. It is likely that President Obama and Secretary General will issue some form of joint statement providing an overview of Trong’s visit to the United States.

Q4. On the 20th anniversary of normalization of relations this year, will Vietnam and the United States advance closer to a strategic partnership, especially after the U.S. lifted the sale of lethal weapons?

ANSWER: Formally, relations between Vietnam and the United States are a comprehensive partnership not a strategic partnership. But whatever name is put on bilateral cooperation it involves strategic cooperation in practice such as maritime security. This is likely to increase in coming years. The ball is in Vietnam’s court to respond to the lifting of ITAR (International Trafficking in Arms Regulations) restrictions on lethal weapons sales on a case by case basis. Vietnam must set its security and defence priorities and negotiate with the United States on the types of weapons and equipment it would like to procure. Presently defence relations fall under the October 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation. It is time for the two sides to update this MOU and move into new areas. This is a task for defence officials on both sides.

Q5.What is the feasibility of President Obama’s visit to Vietnam this year?

ANSWER: It has been announced that President Obama will attend the APEC Summit in Manila this year. This means almost certainly he will attend the ASEAN-U.S. Leaders’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. So a trip to Vietnam is entirely feasible. Washington-based sources say it is up to Vietnam to tie down a firm commitment for a visit by Obama; Secretary General Trong’s visit is fortuitous in this respect. A visit to Hanoi by President Obama would be a fitting capstone to celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of normalized relations. But a presidential visit must be marked by what American officials call “deliverables” – there must be a commitment to make substantial progress on the nine areas listed in the Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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