By Hung Nguyen & Murray Hiebert
On July 24, 2013, Truong Tan Sang became the second Vietnamese president to visit the United States in the 18 years since the United States normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam. President Sang’s visit must be put in the larger context of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s keynote address at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on June 1, President Barack Obama’s meeting with President Xi Jinping of China at Sunnylands on June 8, Sang’s visit to China on June 19-21, and reporting in the Vietnamese government-controlled press in recent weeks.
The visit was designed to show three things: one, Vietnam continues to practice a policy of diversification of its foreign relations; two, it does not want to be a victim of a ménage à trois between the United States, China, and itself; three, Vietnamese leaders increasingly put a premium on strengthening relations with the United States, despite Hanoi’s insistence that it places equal value on its relations with all major powers.
While nothing concrete came out of the Obama-Xi meeting on building a “new big-power relationship,” there were indications that all was not well during Sang’s visit to Beijing after Prime Minister Dung’s keynote speech two weeks earlier when he publicly took a tough stand against China over the disputed South China Sea. This probably accounts for the fact that, while the visit of the Vietnamese president to the United States had been discussed for months, the timing of the visit was sudden.
Between Sang’s trip to China and his visit to Washington, Vietnamese media published a series of articles highly critical of China. Phu Nu Today (Women Today), on July 1, published an article criticizing the dissonance between China’s rhetoric and actions when it comes to talks on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea .
The strongest article, titled “Vietnam’s electronic warfare in the defense of Spratly [Islands],” in well-connected newspaper Dat Viet (Vietnamese Nation), on July 12, speculated on two possible scenarios of a Chinese invasion and even described ways in which Vietnam could “take revenge” despite Chinese technical superiority, and warned that “the enemy will pay a heavy price.”
On the surface, the results of Sang’s trip and his meeting with Obama were positive, but less than anticipated.
At the Shangri-la Dialogue, Prime Minister Dung expressed Vietnam’s desire to form “strategic partnerships” with all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Vietnam established strategic partnerships with Russia in 2001, with China in 2008 and the United Kingdom in 2010. Following Dung’s speech, Vietnam went on to sign “strategic partnership” agreements with Indonesia and Thailand, and a “Plan of Action to develop a Vietnam-China strategic cooperative partnership” with China. Since the idea of a U.S.-Vietnam strategic partnership had been suggested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton three years earlier, it was only natural that the two countries would announce a “strategic partnership” during Sang’s visit.
In the end, the two leaders were only able to agree to form a “comprehensive partnership to provide an overarching framework for advancing the relationship.” This was not unexpected, because a month before Sang’s visit, Senior Lt. General Do Ba Ty, Vietnam’s Chief of the General Staff, expressed his country’s desire to develop a comprehensive relationship with the United States, including in defense ties, when he visited the Defense Department on June 20.
General Ty reportedly reiterated Vietnam’s desire for the United States to lift its ban against selling lethal weapons to Vietnam to complete the normalization of military relations between the two countries. However, Sang‘s visit did not result in a favorable decision by the U.S. government on this issue.
Nonetheless, Sang and Obama agreed on a number of important developments.
First, the two sides agreed on the establishment of a regular dialogue between their two foreign ministers in order to institutionalize high-level exchanges between the two countries.
On the South China Sea, the joint statement was clearly favorable to Vietnam’s position in its dispute with China. It reiterated U.S. support for the settlement of disputes by peaceful means based on international law, and for the principle of non-use of force or threat of force in resolving territorial and maritime disputes. The two sides agreed to enhance cooperation (meaning possible consultation and coordination) at regional and international forums.
Furthermore, two memoranda of understanding were signed between state-owned PetroVietnam with partners Exxon Mobil and Murphy Oil, respectively, indicating a commitment for U.S. energy developments off Vietnam’s coast.
On the economic side, both sides committed to conclude the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement “as soon as possible this year,” and agreed to take into account “the diversity of the participants’ levels of development in the context of a comprehensive and balanced package.” In Vietnam, this might be interpreted as the United States granting Vietnam more favorable market access to garments than it has offered so far in the negotiations.
The outcomes of the visit were not as path-breaking as anticipated by some observers, but at the same time, each side achieved its strategic objectives to some extent. As a gesture of continued U.S. commitment to the region, President Obama agreed to visit Vietnam by the end of his term in 2016. Vietnam, meanwhile, is one step closer to consolidating its position among the world’s major powers.
Mr. Hung Nguyen is an Associate Professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University and a Non-Resident Senior Associate at CSIS. Mr. Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies at CSIS.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.