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Vietnam’s Party Chief to Visit Beijing Then Washington By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0067/ 2015


We request your assessment of upcoming high-profile visits of Vietnamese leadersto China and the United States.

Q1. Vietnamese senior leaders are preparing for a series of upcoming visits toimportant partners, promising a busy year for diplomacy, including two significantvisits recently announced. Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong will go to China and then the United States

In your assessment, does the timing of these diplomatic activities send any new message from Vietnam to the world, given the core of Vietnamese diplomacyremains multilateral, open and becoming friends of all nations?

ANSWER: The forthcoming program of high-level visits by the party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to China and the U.S., the State President Truong Tan Sang to Laos, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand, are a reflection of Vietnam’s balanced approach in multilateralizing its foreign relations with the major powers and regional states. The timing and sequence of Secretary General Trong’s visits to Beijing and Washington are important. China will have to be more accommodating towards Vietnam because Beijing need to restore strategic trust with the leadership in Hanoi. Also, as Vietnam prepares for the 12th national party congress, these visits will provide the top party leadership with important insights into the policies of China and the United States, not only towards each other, but also Vietnam.

2, In your assessment, what is the significance of Secretary General Trong’s visit to China? After tensions in 2014, the two sides managed to mend bilateral relations.

What role does Vietnam play in China’s foreign policies? Can the weight of Vietnam-China relations represented in “Four Goods” help ease the disputes and disagreements in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: Vietnam’s most serious problem last year was its confrontation with Chinese maritime forces over the HD 981 oil platform. Since the crisis bilateral relations have improved but they have not returned to the status quo ante. In other words, the bilateral relationship has not been completely mended because of a deficit of strategic trust. China will be obligated to reciprocate the visit of Vietnam’s party Secretary General. Once understanding is reached at high-level the two sides can resume other high-level visits that have been held in abeyance.

In Chinese eyes Vietnam has importance for at least three reasons. First, Vietnam is a socialist state with a historical legacy of cooperation and support with China. Second, Vietnam is a state on China’s periphery and it is in the interest of both sides to keep their bilateral relations stable and conflict-free. Third, Vietnam is an important country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since ASEAN functions on the basis of consensus among its members it is in China’s interest not to alienate Vietnam.

The “four goods” – good neighbours, good friends, good comrades and good partners – is an aspirational goal that must be constantly managed. The “four goods” can serve to a certain extent as the normative framework for bilateral relations. Both sides must match words with deeds.

3, Regarding the visit to the U.S. by the top leader of the Vietnam Communist Party in the year of 20th anniversary of normalization of relations, what significance does this visit have?

ANSWER: What is significant is that the United States will receive the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party. In strict protocol terms Vietnam’s party Secretary General has no counterpart in the U.S. political system. The head of the Democrat Party (or Republican Party) do not hold an equivalent position of power compared to Vietnam’s party chief. Secretary General Trong’s visit is a recognition by the United States of the central role of the Vietnam Communist Party in Vietnam’s political system.

More particularly, since bilateral relations come under the framework of the 2013 Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership, the visit by the Secretary General raises relations to a higher level. It sets a precedent for the future because it is the first visit by the leader of the Vietnam Communist Party to the United States.. Secretary General Trong’s visit is important because it strengthens Vietnam’s hand in its relations with China (and vice versa the Secretary General’s visit to China strengthens Vietnam’s hand in its relations with the United States).

Because Vietnam is preparing key policy documents for the 12th party congress to cover the next five to ten years, it is important for all of Vietnam’s top leaders to make a correct assessment of the policies and intentions of the major power, including China and the United States, on a wide range of issue, including political- diplomatic, economic and security and defence relations.

4, Looking back, Vietnam has continuously maintained a peaceful, stable and cooperative environment over nearly thirty years since Vietnam and China officially normalized bilateral relations. During that time, how have Vietnam’s foreign policies changed and helped upgrading the country’s status and influence in the region and the world?

ANSWER: The early years of China-Vietnam normalization had their moments of tension. In 1997 (and again in 2004), China deployed the Kantan 3 oil rig in Vietnamese waters. These particular incidents were settled. By the late 1990s China and Vietnam reached agreement on demarcating their land border and this led to agreement on delimiting the Gulf of Tonkin and discussions on the waters forming the mouth of the Tonkin Gulf.

In the new century Vietnam began to negotiate strategic partnerships with the major powers such as Russia, Japan, India, China, South Korea and other states (Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France). Relations with Russia and China were raised to comprehensive strategic partnerships. Now Vietnam has strategic partnerships with all five of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council as well as many Southeast Asian states including Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. Vietnam also reached agreements on comprehensive partnerships with Australia and the United States.

Vietnam has enhanced its status be joining ASEAN and in 2010 serving as ASEAN Chair. In this capacity Vietnam hosted ASEAN and related summits and the inaugural meeting of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.

Internationally, Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organisation, hosted the APEC Summit, and was the Asia bloc’s unanimous choice for non-permanent member on the UN Security Council. Vietnam was elected to this position with a commanding vote in the UN General Assembly. Vietnam strongly supported the establishment of the East Asia Summit and supported Australia and the UnitedStates in becoming members.

Vietnam also made its first commitment to UN peacekeeping by sending military observers to Sudan and Vietnam is poised to increase its involvement.

5, It might be observed that this is the first time in history Vietnam has established partnerships with all the major countries, including the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. Notably, Vietnam shares a lot of common economic, political and security interests with all the countries. In your view, can that guarantee Vietnam will remain peaceful and stable environment in the coming years?

ANSWER: Vietnam’s strategic partnerships are a necessary component of its strategy of defending national sovereignty and promoting a peaceful regional environment.

Strategic partnerships are reciprocal. Both parties must exercise restraint and respect the other party. Strategic partnerships, therefore, are not sufficient to maintain a peaceful and stable environment. This depends on adherence to the rule of international law, the strength of regional multilateral institutions, and an equilibrium between the major powers. Vietnam’s peace and security could be affected in one of two ways: first, a major power might take unilateral action that affects Vietnam’s national interest or second, a conflict between states could spill over and affect Vietnam.

6, In this year and the next, Vietnam is going to join many comprehensive economic

integration frameworks such as ASEAN Economic Community, TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], and FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] with many major economies.

Recalling that Vietnam has been “preparing” for this, what is your assessment of theview that Vietnam has to deeply integrate with the international economy? Will thislead to stronger institutional and economic reform as the Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee has repeatedly stated? Or is there another safer and more reliable path to domestic reform?

ANSWER: Vietnam has no choice but to proactively integrate with the global economy. First, as a member of ASEAN Vietnam must adhere to the agreed rules for the ASEAN Economic Community that include the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Second,

Vietnam has a massive trade imbalance with China, this can only be offset by Vietnam’s economic relations with the United States, Japan and the European Union. Vietnam stands much to gain by membership in the TPP with access to nearly forty percent of the world’s economy at reduced rates of tariffs. Every country, including Vietnam, must accept tradeoffs when joining multilateral economic arrangements.

This means that Vietnam must reform its own economy and negotiate with other states the pace and scope of these reforms. There is an expression used by athletes – “no gain without pain.” This is also true for economic performance. In the past there was an expression commonly used in Vietnam, “vung ra bien lon,” or take the plunge in the big ocean. In order to do this Vietnam had to strengthen itself first. The Central Committee is correct in supporting Vietnam’s proactive global integration. Vietnam already has taken the plunge but as the Global Economic Crisis demonstrated, it must continue to strengthen itself to deal with unexpected “big waves.”


(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: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)


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