You are on page 1of 9

Thayer Consultancy

ABN # 65 648 097 123

Background Briefing: Vietnam Preview: President Truong Tan Sangs Visit to Washington Carlyle A. Thayer July 11, 2013

[client name deleted] We request your assessment of the recent announcement that Vietnams President, Truong Tan Sang, will make an official visit to the United States. In particular, we request your assessment of the meaning of a possible strategic partnership agreement. ASSESSMENT: On 1st June this year, Vietnams Prime Minister announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that Vietnam wanted to establish strategic partnerships with all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Vietnam already negotiated strategic partnerships with China, Russia and the United Kingdom. Now Vietnam was signaling that it was seeking to upgrade its relations with the United States and France. In mid-2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi she declared that all the fundamentals were in place to take U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations to the next level. But, she warned, Vietnams record on human rights would have to improve first. Since Clintons visit Vietnams human rights record has gotten worse , especially in the first half of this year. On 11 November 2011, the United States and Vietnam reportedly discussed the possibility of a strategic partnership on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Honolulu. However, later in November, Hanoi-based diplomats said that talks on a strategic partnership had stalled over how human rights should be addressed in the draft agreement. The U.S. side reportedly wanted a separate article on human rights, while Vietnam reportedly wanted human rights subsumed under a more inclusive article dealing with political relations. Late the following year (2012), the U.S. abruptly pulled out of the annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam. The dialogue was rescheduled earlier this year but no improvement in human rights was noticeable. In June 2013, two senior Obama officials testified before Congress on U.S.-Vietnam relations, both stressed the importance of positive changes (demonstrable progress) in Vietnams human rights record before progress could be achieved in other fields such as the TransPacific Partnership (TPP). It was therefore somewhat of a surprise when Agence France Presse revealed on 11 July that President Barack Obama had invited his Vietnamese counterpart, Truong

2 Tan Sang, to visit Washington later in the month. Two days prior, Vietnam announced it was postponing the trial of American-connected high-profile dissident Le Quoc Quan. Why has the U.S. seemingly changed its position on human rights and invited Vietnams president to the United States? The answer appears to lie in the U.S. policy of rebalancing and the recent uptick in Sino-Vietnamese relations following President Sangs visit to Beijing. Vietnam seeks to balance its relations with China and the United States. Hanoi has been lobbying for at least a year for a visit by President Obama (to reciprocate President Nguyen Minh Triets visit to the U.S. in 2007). In June 2013, Senior Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty, Vietnams Chief of the General Staff, visited Washington with a high-powered delegation. This was the first time that Vietnams Chief of the General Staff had visited the United States. Have the two sides reached a quid pro quo? Vietnam may be seeking to step up its defence cooperation with the United States. The United States is seeking greater access to Vietnam. Some Vietnamese leaders may have concluded that unless the gridlock with the U.S. is broken, Vietnam will have less leverage in dealing with China. Vietnam wants to have the ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation) restrictions removed. At present Vietnam is permitted to purchase non-lethal items on a case by case basis. This restriction is likely to remain in place. However, ITAR has been amended recently to permit the sale of dual use (military-civilian) equipment and technology. While it is speculative to conclude that such a trade-off is likely, it is more certain that the U.S. will assist Vietnam in its first commitment to peacekeeping under the auspices of the United Nations. Vietnam s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung publicly announced Vietnams decision to participate in UN peacekeeping missions at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this year. President Sangs visit to the United States will seek to advance Hanois quest for a strategic partnership agreement with Washington. President Obama will seek to secure further Vietnamese commitments on enhancing economic relations through the TPP. President Sangs visit holds the promise of moving Vietnams relations with the United States to the next level prior to the East Asia Summit in Brunei in October this year. Perhaps Vietnams game plan is to advance the relationship in the coming months so President Obama can make a side trip to Vietnam where the two sides will formally sign a strategic partnership agreement. Vietnam will benefit because the agreement will be on its soil, the U.S. will benefit because President Obama will be in Southeast Asia advancing his rebalancing strategy.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Vietnam Preview: President Truong Sangs Visit to Washington, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 11, 2013. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key.

3 Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123

Background Briefing: China Factor Behind President Truong Tan Sangs Visit to Washington? Carlyle A. Thayer July 20, 20131

David Brown, a retired American diplomat and respected Hanoi Watcher, recently argued that
Head-of-state visits typically take months to organize, but Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang is coming to Washington on very short notice and just after an evidently jolting encounter with China's leaders. Could it be that Sang and his colleagues have decided to pay the price the US has demanded for a "strategic partnership"?2 The Politburo's decision to send Sang to Washington suggests that Vietnam's leaders have been shaken by what Xi and his colleagues told Sang in private and are ready to deal with the US on a more intimate defense relationship.

U.S. officials raised the possibility of President Sangs visit in late March/early April this year. The U.S. proposal officially was put to Vietnam in July, and after some initial hesitation, Vietnam responded in the affirmative. It is in this sense that President Sangs visit was arranged at short notice. For over a year Vietnam has attempted to lure either or both President Obama and Secretary Kerry to Hanoi. In Vietnams view, protocol dictated that the U.S. reciprocate the visit of Vietnams President Nguyen Minh Triet to the U.S. in 2007. Vietnam also sought to entice Vietnam War veteran Secretary Kerry to Hanoi after his appointment. Two visits were scheduled and both were cancelled due to development in the Middle East. The key question is why was the visit arranged at such short notice, why now? David Browns argument stresses the importance of President Sangs recent visit to Beijing (19-21 June) and the jolting encounter he had with President Xi Jinping. Vietnamese sources report that Sang is used to receiving an ear bashing (or on Browns words, earful of admonition) from Chinese officials on South China Sea issues and would not have been duly alarmed by what he was told. Indeed, there is evidence that China is re-thinking its assertive South China Sea policy and President Xi broached an old idea of shelving sovereignty and engaging in joint development.
1 2

Revised August 18, 2013. David Brown, Vietnam Between Rock and a Hard Place: Is disappointment with China behind Vietnam presidents hurried visit to Washington?, Yale Global Online, July 18, 2013. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/vietnam-between-rock-and-hard-place.

2 Vietnamese officials also note that discussions on the U.S. visit had been underway for nearly three months prior to the Sang-Xi encounter. American analysts express some skepticism that a presidential visit to The White House could have been arranged at such short notice (that is after the June trip by President Sang to Beijing). Brown claims that China and Vietnam agreed to shelve discussions on the Paracel Islands. This appears speculative. In fact, Vietnam has never shelved its claim to the Paracels. China steadfastly refuses to enter into bilateral discussions on the Paracels. On a more positive note, Vietnam and China agreed to progress bilateral government-to-government talks on the waters forming the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin. These talks appear to be inching forward. These talks do not include the South China Sea proper. The timing of President Obamas invitation to President Sang needs to be explained because any meeting of this nature was predicated on the demonstrable improvement in Vietnams human rights situation. Vietnams human rights situation did not improve between March and July when the two sides were discussing a presidential visit; in face human rights in Vietnam deteriorated. While it is common for foreign analysts to focus on the China-U.S. angle, this focus obscures other dynamics at play. The two main drivers behind Presidents Sang invitation to meet President Obama at The White House are U.S. rebalancing and economic issues related to advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.3 On 13 April 2013 the Vietnam Communist Partys Politburo issued a Resolution on Increasing Integration. This resolution gives priority to economic integration with all the major powers and set the scene for President Sangs visits to China and the United States. Vietnam cannot hope to overcome its huge trade imbalance with China (estimated at US $14 billion). Chinese investment in Vietnam will not be sufficient either. Vietnam and its garment industry needs continued and assured access to the US market. This is not the only economic issue at stake. Both Vietnam and the U.S. have major interests in advancing the TPP negotiations. The timing of the unanimous Politburo Resolution strongly suggests that it was the main factor behind Vietnams short-notice acceptance of President Obamas invitation to Washington.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, China Factor Behind President Truong Tan Sangs Visit to Washington?, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 20, 2013. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.
3

Carlyle A. Thayer, Vietnam Preview: President Truong Sangs Visit to Washington, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 11, 2013.

Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123

Background Briefing: Vietnam: Preview of President Truong Tan Sangs U.S. Visit Carlyle A. Thayer July 23, 20131

[client name deleted] We request your analytical assistance in preparing a report on the forthcoming visit by Vietnams President Truong Tan Sang to the United States for a meeting with President Barack Obama at The White House. According to our sources the presidential meeting was initiated by the United States. Vietnamese sources report that they did not think the presidential trip would take place after Secretary of State John Kerry twice cancelled his planned visit to Vietnam. We request that you address the following questions: What is the significance of the trip? Do you expect any change in bilateral relations after this trip? Do you agree that the presidential talks will focus more on economic issues and the soft side of cooperation and downplay military tries? ANSWER: The visit to Washington by President Truong Tan Sang is a major step forward in bilateral relations between Vietnam and the United States. The facts speak for themselves. The last Vietnamese Presidential visit was in 2007. President Sangs visit is the first high-level visit in half a decade, following Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dungs visit to Washington in 2008. And, as Nguyen Quoc Cuong, Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with the Vietnam News Agency, nearly one decade has passed since the two nations es tablished the current framework of constructive, friendly partnership and multi-faceted cooperation During the period since normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995 two-way trade has grown to US $25 billion with a heavy surplus in Vietnams favour. The numbers of Vietnamese students studying in the United States has reached over 15,000. There are many other indicators of the growth in bilateral relations. Quite simply the time is now ripe to restructure the bilateral relationship for mutual benefit. On April 13 this year the Vietnam Communist Partys Politburo unanimously adopted a resolution on international integration. This document made absolutely clear that

Revised August 18, 2013.

2 priority was to be given to economic integration and that all other forms of integration, including security and defence, were to support this objective. Economic relations will dominate during Presidents visit to the U.S. A White House statement noted that President Obama would like to discuss with his Vietnamese counterpart the importance of completing a high standard Trans -Pacific Partnership (TPP). A Vietnamese source who has read an opinion editorial article written by U.S. Ambassador David Shear but not yet published reported that the TPP was identified as the next step to upgrade bilateral relations. A knowledgeable source reported that the prep team for President Sangs trip said they were surprised when the U.S. side quickly agreed to all the bullet points given by the Vietnamese side. The key issue will be a commitment by both sides to speed up negotiations on the TPP to meet President Obamas desire to see an agreement reached by all parties by October. Neither president is likely go into specific details, but both will commit their negotiating teams to make progress. Agreement on the TPP would lay a strong foundation for codifying their bilateral relations into a more formal document. It has long been speculated that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for a strategic partnership in 2010. It is significant that the July 11th statement by The White House Press Secretary noted President Obama welcomes the opportunity to discuss with President Sang how to further strengthen our partnership on regional security issues; while the Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States, Nguyen Quoc Cuong, said that it is time to define a new bilateral partnership agreement. Vietnams Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, speaking at the Shangri -La Dialogue in Singapore on 1 June, stated that Vietnam wanted to establish strategic partnerships with all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Whether the final agreement will be officially called a strategic partnership is unclear. Vietnam and Australia, for example, agreed to a comprehensive partnership. In fact, this agreement is a strategic partnership by another name. Strategic partnership agreements include a commitment to develop a multi-year Plan of Action and a joint high-level mechanism to manage cooperative activities. While economic relations are likely to dominate the presidential discussions, there are other issues on the table. The U.S. has signaled that President Obama would like to discuss enhancing cooperation with Vietnam and ASEAN, climate change and human rights. There has been some media speculation that the South China Sea will dominate discussions. This remains to be seen. It is more likely that both sides will reiterate their long-standing support for upholding international law, an ASEANChina code of conduct, and the non-use or threat of force. President Obama will maintain U.S. neutrality in the merits of conflicting sovereignty claims. Vietnam is one of the worlds top ten countries where the impact of climate change will be most severe. Cooperation on mitigating the impact of climate change has long been a topic for discussion between the U.S. and Vietnam. It is one of the key issues included in Vietnams strategic partnership agreements with European states. It would form an important element in a future strategic partnership-type agreement.

3 Vietnams Ambassador to the U.S., in an interview with Vietnam News Agency, noted that the two presidents will clarify the scope of the new bilateral relationship. A knowledgeable Vietnamese source cautions:
according to my sources, there will be no signing of the strategic partnership though it will be mentioned in the joint statement. It is understood that the Vietnamese side tried to hold off the signing with the hope that it will ensure Obama's trip to Hanoi in October. I believe it will be named "comprehensive partnership agreement" to overcome opposition from the conservative group within the Politburo.

The U.S. position on human rights has been repeatedly mentioned by American officials as an obstacle to the development of bilateral relations. But U.S. officials appear to be down playing this issue in advance of President Sangs visit. A Vietnamese source who viewed Ambassador Shears op ed article prior to publication stated, he barely mentioned anything related to human rights issue. President Obama has plenty of scope to raise human rights issues including the case of hunger striker Cu Huy Ha Vu, lawyer Le Quoc Quan, and other imprisoned dissidents such as Father Nguyen Van Ly, Nguyen Van Hai (Dieu Cay). Significantly, President Truong Tan Sang has stated unequivocally we are ready to discuss the topics of democracy, human rights and religious freedom during his meeting with President Obama. One straw in the wind that could positively affect bilateral relations would be for Vietnams National Assembly t o adopt an amendment to the state Constitution further strengthening Vietnams commitment to human rights and religious freedom. It is notable, in return, that the Vietnamese press has revived reporting on the loss of life and limb caused by wartime unexploded ordnance and the continuing effects of Agent Orange. The media has called on the U.S. to step up its efforts to address these issues. Future military-to-military cooperation also appears to have been downplayed. Very little has been said in public about the first visit by Senior Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty, Chief of the General Staff, Vietnam Peoples Army. A Vietnamese source who viewed several drafts of Ambassador Shears op ed article noted that an early draft mentioned a small part about military cooperation but in the end it was not included. There is a lot at stake for both countries for the upcoming presidential discussions to end on a successful note. The U.S. policy of rebalancing is in need of a major nondefence and security component. An agreement on the TPP would fit the bill. Vietnam, which aims to multilateralize and diversify its external relations, would very much like to upgrade the framework of its bilateral relations with the U.S. to further its goal of international integration and balancing its relations with the major powers. Confidential press guidance issued to the Vietnamese media directed journalists not to mention Vietnam siding with any country or lower the importance of any country while reporting. If all goes well following President Sangs visit to Washington, the foundations could be laid for a potential visit by President Obama to Hanoi in October when he attends the East Asia Summit in nearby Brunei.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Vietnam: Preview of President Truong Tan Sangs U.S. Visit, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 23, 2013. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.