Obama Holds Out His Hand to the Leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party

The American president received Nguyễn Phú Trọng at the White House, drawing threats from Beijing regarding the South China Sea.

The photo speaks volumes about the importance attributed to this visit. In it, we see Barack Obama smiling warmly, welcoming Nguyễn Phú Trọng, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, in the White House Oval Office. The president of the United States receiving one of the most powerful dignitaries of an authoritarian communist regime is already an event in itself. The fact that it is an unelected representative of Vietnam, the country against which the U.S. waged war for almost 20 years, is the sign of a highly symbolic and historic meeting. On Tuesday, Washington didn’t, of course, roll out the red carpet for Nguyễn Phú Trọng and didn’t grant him all the honors of a state visit. But it’s still the Obama administration that sent the invitation.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, this four-day visit is a significant additional step in the normalization of relations between the two countries, which began in 1995. “Vietnam and the United States, once enemies, have become friends and have been actively engaged in a global partnership since 2013. It’s really a big step that few could have imagined 20 years ago”*, said Nguyễn Phú Trọng, before landing in the United States.

“Candid” Discussion on Human Rights

On Tuesday, July 7, the American president acknowledged that the two countries had had a “difficult history” and hailed the “remarkable progress” that has been made. He said that there had been a “candid” discussion on human rights. We weren’t expecting any less. For years, Vietnam has been criticized for hindering fundamental freedoms (the right of assembly, association and movement) and religious freedoms, as well as for its repeated abuses and violence in detention centers. The country has approximately 150 political prisoners (bloggers, lawyers, religious figures, community activists and trade-union representatives). John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for the organization Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday that Vietnam “has done so little in recent months to deserve the reward that is an Oval Office meeting.”

But this visit is important for Washington. Beyond the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the welcome granted to Nguyễn Phú Trọng shows that the administration is in a sort of update phase with regard to its old communist enemies, following the recent reunion with Cuba. The depth of the relations with Hanoi also illustrates a shift in Washington’s foreign policy toward Asia, which started in 2009. Faced with the emergence of a China with hegemonic maritime ambitions which threaten the role of the United States as regional policeman, the Obama administration wants to redefine its presence in the region’s waters, and to do this, it is growing strategic friendships and useful alliances in China’s backyard. As Hillary Clinton said in 2010 on her visit to Hanoi, “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

Great Wall of Sand

For Hanoi, this visit comes at the right time. Even though it has always taken care to balance its politics between the major powers (previously Moscow-Beijing, now Beijing-Washington), the Vietnamese regime has never missed a chance to give itself some breathing space, faced with its stifling Chinese neighbor. Without going back to the thousand years of Chinese domination, which was traumatic for the Vietnamese national psyche, the history between the two communist brothers remains fractious. Without mentioning China by name, the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party publicly expressed his concerns Tuesday regarding the conflicts in the South China Sea, where “[recent activities are] not in accordance with international law.”

Recently, it’s the Spratly Islands that are the cause of Hanoi’s bitterness. In this region where maritime routes and the strategic interests of all of Asia cross, Beijing is cementing dozens of reefs with all guns blazing to build its “great wall of sand.” In a sign of constant tension, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has just revealed that the 3,100-meter runway being constructed on the Fiery Cross Reef is almost complete. Faced with these bulldozing operations, Vietnam is looking to assert pressure and is sending Beijing a message by dispatching Nguyễn Phú Trọng, an ideologist and apparatchik, to the U.S., which in the past enjoyed close relations with China. At the same time, Hanoi wants to strengthen its military cooperation with the Americans, who themselves want access to Vietnamese ports.

This meeting also has an important commercial aspect. Before he leaves the White House, Obama wants to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast free-trade treaty for Asia and the Pacific. And Vietnam is one of the countries being highly pampered by the American president as it is his main trading partner in Southeast Asia. All this really did deserve a photo in the Oval Office.

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