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New era in relations as Obama administration considers Vietnam key partner: scholars

Thursday, July 09, 2015, 12:00 GMT+7
New era in relations as Obama administration considers Vietnam key partner: scholars
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong after they spoke to reporters following their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 2015.

General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong’s meeting with U.S. President Obama in the Oval Office on July 7 indicates a new era in Vietnam-U.S. relations, as Washington now regards Hanoi as a key partner in the Asia Pacific region, scholars have told Tuoi Tre News in a discussion.

All of this has happened just two decades after the restoration of diplomatic ties, Greg Poling, a fellow at the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on Wednesday.

General Secretary Trong is on a historic visit to the U.S., the first by a general secretary, from July 6 to 10 at the invitation of the Obama administration.

On this occasion, Vietnam and the U.S. adopted a Joint Vision Statement on July 7.

Dr. Zachary Abuza, a former professor of political science at Simmons College who studies Vietnam, said the Vietnam-U.S. joint statement reflects how far both countries have come in the past 20 years, although there have been mistrust and difficulties along the way.

Poling and Dr. Abuza joined a discussion with Tuoi Tre News yesterday on Vietnam-U.S. relations through the landmark visit by General Secretary Trong.

What are major points in the Vietnam-U.S. joint statement released shortly after the historic talks between President Obama and General Secretary Trong at the White House on July 7?  

Prof. Abuza:

The joint statement reflects how far the countries have come in the past 20 years since normalization, although there have been mistrust and difficulties along the way. I believe both sides feel confident that they have built a foundation for a very enduring partnership. The two sides agreed to enhance their comprehensive partnership in defense, though much more has to be negotiated to implement this. While both sides have a shared concern over Chinese actions in the [East Vietnam Sea], this is not an alliance. But more port visits, joint training exercises and cooperation in humanitarian assistance are good places to deepen the relationship. For the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], the two sides agreed to hasten the conclusion of negotiations. General Secretary Trong has committed Vietnam to a path of outward economic development. No country has had to do more to accede to the TPP than Vietnam, and there are still hurdles, but the U.S. and Vietnam see the TPP as the basis for a deepened partnership. Regarding human rights, the joint statement acknowledges differences, but affirms their commitment to continue to hold an honest and open annual dialogue. The joint statement also speaks of the importance of people-to-people ties. Vietnam has over 16,000 students in the U.S., which is almost as many as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines; all wealthier countries with deep historical and diplomatic ties to the U.S.

Greg Poling:

Both sides discussed the full range of relations, including growing Vietnam-U.S. defense relations, the difficult concessions necessary, especially from Vietnam, on the TPP, continued work on war legacy issues, and increasing people-to-people relations, including educational and science and technology cooperation. The joint statement reflects the "comprehensiveness" of the "comprehensive partnership" announced during President Truong Tan Sang's visit in 2013, and which this trip seeks to further.

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Greg Poling, a fellow at the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

President Obama and General Secretary Trong are said to have had a "substantive conversation" about a range of issues, including tensions in the East Vietnam Sea and human rights concerns, though there has been great emphasis on the symbolism because the general secretary holds no formal government position but he was hosted in the Oval Office, as a head of state would be. What do you think?

Prof. Abuza:

The meeting was largely symbolic; there was far more form than substance. Compared to the 2013 visit by President Sang, this is being more micromanaged. It comes on the 20th anniversary of normalization, but it's also the first meeting between a general secretary and a U.S. president. This was a meeting about building bilateral trust. There were substantive discussions. Both countries do share concerns about China's aggression in the [East Vietnam Sea], their lack of transparency and their dubious interpretation of international law. But neither mentioned China by name. President Obama did raise human rights concerns, but my understanding is far less vociferously than two letters sent from members of the House of Representatives and the Senate called on him to make. It's really important that the two sides build up trust on the issue of human rights. The U.S. is simply trying to get Vietnam to live by its own laws and international treaty obligations.  

Greg Poling:

General Secretary Trong’s visit is highly symbolic, especially his Oval Office meeting with President Obama. It indicates a new era of U.S.-Vietnam relations, just two decades after the restoration of diplomatic ties. In that sense, it certainly helps boost trust. But it also carries real “deliverables," as U.S. officials like to say. The two leaders discussed key issues, including the [East Vietnam Sea], the TPP, and human rights concerns in Vietnam. There was a major deal announced for Boeing to sell planes to Vietnam Airlines.

General Secretary Trong said President Obama has accepted his invitation to visit Vietnam. President Obama also told reporters that he is looking forward to visiting Vietnam. What impact would a visit by President Obama have on bilateral ties?

Prof. Abuza:

I am pleased that President Obama will be making a visit to Vietnam this November in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Senior-leader engagement helps to deepen ties at the working level. But more importantly, the Obama administration sees Vietnam as a key partner in the region, economically and strategically.  

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Dr. Zachary Abuza, a former professor of political science at Simmons College who studies Vietnam

Greg Poling:

In his remarks following their Oval Office meeting, President Obama welcomed General Secretary Trong's invitation for him to visit Vietnam later this year. It is clear that Obama wants to visit, especially given the historic nature of this year as the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. 

What are the current differences and difficulties between Vietnam and the U.S.? Do you think that General Secretary Trong’s visit will settle all of these?

Prof. Abuza:  

No, General Secretary Trong's visit will not solve all the differences. But that he accepted the invitation to come, without a doubt, is important. The two sides do not see eye to eye on human rights, though I also think that the U.S. has failed to take into account very meaningful changes that are taking place in Vietnam. The Vietnamese ask for greater support for Agent Orange cleanup, which they should get, but which the U.S. government is unwilling to adequately fund. The U.S. would like more port visits than what was agreed to in the 2011 MoU on Defense Cooperation, though they are sensitive to Vietnam's strategic predicament. I think the U.S. made a stupid mistake earlier this year when they called on Vietnam to stop allowing Russia access to the Cam Ranh Bay airfield; almost willfully ignorant of the long and established defense relations between the two countries. The U.S. has to respect Hanoi's commitment to omnidirectional foreign policy.  

Greg Poling:

Outstanding concerns over human rights in Vietnam remain a constraint on how far and how fast the relationship can improve. Issues of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, among others will be discussed throughout General Secretary Trong's visit, but those issues will not be put to rest in the short-term – they will require continued improvement from Vietnam. One area on which the U.S. has been clear that there must be improvement in the short-term is the right of assembly and independent unionization for workers in Vietnam, which will be required under the TPP.

What benefits will be brought to both countries through General Secretary Trong’s historic visit to the White House? 

Prof. Abuza:

In Vietnamese politics the core question is, “How do you cope with China?” Reformers have embraced economic reform, globalization and a diversified foreign policy. Conservatives have tried to emphasize fraternal socialist solidarity. The conservatives have been repeatedly humiliated by China, especially in the past few years. The most important thing is that General Secretary Trong accepted the invitation. It sends a clear signal to China. I personally think this trend is going to accelerate after the 12th Congress. For Vietnam, the general secretary's endorsement of the TPP is an important milestone and gives reformers more power to push through reforms of SOEs and privatization. For both sides, it makes working level cooperation more possible.

General Secretary Trong is also scheduled to meet Bill Clinton and his wife, Hilary Clinton, who could become the next U.S. president. Do you have any comment on that? 

Prof. Abuza:  

President Clinton just concluded a successful visit to Hanoi to celebrate the 20th anniversary. He has made at least five trips to Vietnam and is an important back channel conduit. Obviously, Hillary is the likely Democratic Party nominee. 

Greg Poling:

General Secretary Trong's visit with President Clinton carries significant symbolic value, as Clinton was the president who oversaw the normalization of relations in 1995 and visited Vietnam in 2000. Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state under whom the current period of vastly improving relations kicked off, as well as a leading candidate to be the next president, which also carries significant symbolic value.

Trung Pham/Tuoi Tre News

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