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Vietnam-United States Relations: High-Level Visits on the Horizon By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0009 / 2015

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry sources have privately revealed that Vietnam and the United State are presently discussing arranging a visit to the US for the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong. However, the two sides have not agreed about protocol procedures. Vietnam is not pleased with the refusal of President Barack Obama to receive Secretary General Trong in the Oval Office at The White House. We request your assessment of the following:

Do you think the U.S. side will agree to receive the Secretary General in the Oval Office? What are the hurdles for the U.S. in arranging a visit by the party Secretary General? What status will the United States accord Nguyen Phu Trong? President Obama will visit Vietnam next year, so will Trong’s visit take place before or after Obama’s visit?

ASSESSMENT: Vietnam has been pressing the US for at least a year to host a visit by Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. Protocol has been a major issue. Trong has no direct counterpart in the United States other than the head of the Democratic Party. President Obama is not his counterpart in strict protocol terms. The U.S. would be making a big concession to Vietnam to arrange meeting between Trong and Obama in the Oval Office.

What is in it for the US? Vietnam continues to arrest bloggers, thus undermining what limited progress Vietnam has made in addressing human rights issues. U.S. officials like the term “deliverables”. What exactly will Trong do to advance bilateral relations if he gets a meeting with Obama in the Oval Office?

Trong gets publicity and a degree of legitimacy for the Vietnam Communist Party. There has been some speculation that Vietnam would like Trong to visit Washington, and get Xi Jinping and Obama to visit Vietnam. Vietnam’s main focus should be on getting a firm commitment from the U.S. that President Obama will visit Hanoi in November when he attends the APEC summit in Manila and the ASEAN and related summits in Kuala Lumpur. If Trong were to visit it would have to be before the end of the year while Trong still holds office. July would be an appropriate time – the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations (July 1995-July 2015).

(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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