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Vietnam: Scene Setter for Visits by Xi Jinping & Obama; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0194/2015

Q1. President and General Secretary Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Vietnam next month. What is the main reason for the timing of this visit, does it have anything to do with Vietnam’s preparations for the 12th National Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party? What will be the main points on Xi’s agenda in his discussions with Vietnam’s leaders?

ANSWER: President Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam is aimed at influencing high-level strategic relations. He will stress the further development of the China-Vietnam comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. He will also promote his One Belt, One Road proposal. Xi will offer bight prospects for bilateral economic cooperation with Vietnam, such as increased Chinese investment in infrastructure projects, Chinese willingness to encourage more imports from Vietnam and on monetary affairs (using both currencies in trade). Xi will stress the positive aspects of bilateral relations and win-win cooperation. Xi’s message to Vietnam on the eve of the 12th national congress is: Vietnam has much to gain by cooperating with China with the implication that if Vietnam creates difficulties cooperation could be more difficult. Xi will deliver a subtle and nuanced message that “Asia is for the Asians” and the future will depend on China’s rise. Xi will not say it directly but he will imply “don’t count on the United States.”

Q2. Do you think Vietnam and China will talk “frankly, sincerely and fairly with goodwill” on South China Sea dispute during this visit? Why? Will the two leaders reach agreement on any important issues related to this dispute? If so, what are the likely areas of future cooperation?

ANSWER: In the past high-level meetings between Chinese and Vietnamese party leaders have led to breakthroughs on border demarcation and delimitation of the Gulf of Tonkin. It is unlikely that Xi and Nguyen Phu Trong will be able to set a deadline to complete negotiations on the South China Sea. Both sides will acknowledge, as they have in the past, that the South China Sea is an issue in bilateral relations. However, there are government-to-government mechanisms to handle this issue and Xi will endorse their continuation. The South China Sea issue will be dealt with in general terms. Xi may even promote joint development as a step forward. Xi’s visit will be aimed at creating a more friendly and conducive atmosphere to discuss the South China Sea issue. In other words, Xi will urge Vietnam’s leaders to “look at the big picture while properly handling maritime disputes.”

Q3. Some observers say that China is seeking ways to put pressure and influence on the course of leadership selection in Vietnam between now and the 12th National Party Congress expected to be held in early 2016. This, according to observers, explains the timing of the visit. Do you agree? Which leadership selections does China most want to influence?

ANSWER: Xi will defend China’s actions in constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea, as he did in his meeting with President Obama. He will oppose international arbitration and, in general terms, refute President Truong Tan Sang’s remarks that island building is illegal under international law. Xi will not directly interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs. Xi will hope to influence Vietnam’s prospective new leaders that China remains Vietnam’s most important bilateral relationship. Xi will stress the importance of party-to-party ties, congruence on socialist ideology, and military and youth exchanges.

Q4. What do expect President Obama’s agenda to be when he visits Vietnam? Will Obama announce some initiative to win the favour of Vietnam’s leaders? If so, what do you think the main gesture will be?

ANSWER: President Obama will come to Vietnam to conclude the year in which both countries celebrated the twentieth anniversary of diplomatic relations. The foundations have been laid in the agreement on Comprehensive Partnership with President Sang in 2013, and the Joint Vision Statement with Secretary General Trong this year. Obama is likely to offer assistance to Vietnam to implement the Trans Pacific Partnership but he will also urge Vietnam to implement the TPP in its entirety.

Q5. It seems that Vietnam is a little bit embarrassed now because of these visits at the same time. In your view, what will this triangle-relationship (US-China-Vietnam) look like after the two visits? Could Vietnam improve its relations with the both countries as a result of these visits? Why?

ANSWER: Vietnam is in a position to leverage off the China-US relationship. Both major powers will want to develop good ties with Vietnam. Vietnam can encourage them both to contribute to Vietnam’s development goal of being a modern and industrialized country by 2020. At the same time, Vietnam can also leverage off the tensions between Beijing and Washington over the South China Sea. Vietnam is in the pivot position between these two powers. If China gets too aggressive, Vietnam can step up cooperation with the United States and encourage it to do more to constrain China. If the US puts too much pressure on Vietnam over human rights and democracy promotion, Vietnam can seek out Chinese support. In other words, the power of leverage enables Vietnam to insulate itself from unwanted pressures from either major power.

Q6. What will be the most significant development resulting from the US President’s visit to Vietnam at this time in your view? What should Vietnamese top leaders talk with President Obama about in the context of ongoing South China Sea dispute?

ANSWER: The most significant point is that the US President has chosen to visit Vietnam. This will raise Vietnam’s prestige internationally and set the legacy for future high-level visits. Vietnam should reinforce its commitment to deepening the comprehensive partnership with the United States in the nine major areas spelled out in the 2013 agreement. No doubt a number of economic, trade and educational agreements will be signed on the sidelines of Obama’s visit. With regard to the South China Sea, Vietnam should seek reassurance that the United States will remain engaged in Southeast Asia and protect freedom of navigation and overflight. Vietnam might invite US officials to visit its islands and features in the South China Sea. The US side will reiterate its support to help Vietnam develop its capacity for maritime security. Vietnam should outline the legal and constitutional steps it is taking to promote human rights within a Vietnamese context. Vietnam should also push for greater cooperation between its National Assembly and the US Congress. Vietnam should lobby President Obama to initiate party-to-party talks between the Vietnam Communist Party separately with the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. And Vietnam should take up the US offer to sell lethal weapons on a case-by-case basis by moving forward with proposals. Vietnam should also urge the US to completely lift arms sale restrictions.

Q7. The Party Central Committee’s twelfth plenum will end this weekend. Are there any new developments from what you previously forecasted about who will take the top leadership posts in Vietnam in 2016?

ANSWER: It is too early to reach a definitive conclusion about the results of the 12th plenum. The party has drawn up criteria to be used in the selection of its top officials. The potential candidates will have to persuade the party that they meet these requirements. At least one more Central Committee plenum will be necessary to finalize leaderships selection. It is noticeable that initially the 12th party congress was going to be held “early in 2016” and now party officials are saying it will be held “in the first quarter of 2016” indicating that more preparations might have to be made.

(Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and Director of Thayer Consultancy registered in Australia. email:

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