Biden Should Invite Vietnam’s Party Chief for a Visit

President Joe Biden should pencil the name of Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong onto his 2023 diplomatic “dance card.” Vietnam has in recent years emerged as one of Washington’s most consequential partners in the Indo-Pacific and is a frontline state facing China’s assertiveness in Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the United States and Vietnam signing a bilateral comprehensive partnership in 2013. Washington has lobbied Hanoi for several years to consider upgrading the relationship to a strategic partnership but Vietnam has held back, perhaps in part due to concerns about the reaction from China. However, in recent weeks, Vietnam has told visitors that it is ready to upgrade ties with the United States, but it wants to do this in tandem with a visit by its party leader.

The timing for Vietnam is ideal because the party chief visited Beijing just after China’s Communist Party congress last October. The ruling parties in the two countries are notionally ideological soulmates, but their relations have been fraught since they fought a brief border war in 1979 and China parked a giant deepwater oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014.

Trong’s visit to Beijing late last year gives Vietnam some breathing room to step up ties with Washington in the coming months. The timing in the United States is also optimum before the country enters a likely heated and contentious presidential election campaign in 2024.

Since Vietnam normalized relations with the United States in 1995 and rapidly built up its economic, political, and security ties with its erstwhile foe, Hanoi has looked to Washington as a hedge and buffer against Beijing. With China’s border less than 60 miles from Hanoi, the fiercely independent Vietnamese need to look over their shoulders when enhancing relations with the Americans.

A visit by a senior Vietnamese leader is overdue, considering the close ties between the two countries and the wide swath of areas in which they cooperate. Vietnam has not had a bilateral visit to the United States since former prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited in 2017. Trong visited Washington once before in 2015 when Barack Obama was president. Then-vice president Biden hosted the party chief for a lunch at the State Department on that trip because then-secretary of state John Kerry was stuck in France after he got injured in a bicycle accident.

Some question whether the party chief, who is 78 and has had some health challenges in recent years, is well enough for the 20-plus hour trip to Washington. Sources who recently met the leader are convinced he could endure the trip if it was broken up a few times along the way for Trong to rest.

The fact that Trong was the first foreign leader to visit Beijing after the Chinese party congress and in recent months has ousted a number of officials who seemed to lean toward the West for alleged corruption has prompted speculation that the Vietnamese leader and the party may be pivoting toward China. But sources in Vietnam argue that Trong’s visit has given him the latitude with China to upgrade its ties with the United States to a strategic partnership, something Hanoi had done with Beijing years earlier.

It is worth noting that Trong first mounted his anti-corruption campaign more than a decade ago, so its origin is hardly an initiative he copied from Chinese leader Xi Jinping. An invitation from Washington would test the speculation in some circles that Trong is rebalancing to Beijing.

What pillars could the two countries consider including in a strategic partnership?

First, they could explore an agreement to promote supply chain resilience to ensure a stable and diverse source of inputs particularly in technology. The two sides could explore adding technology transfers and facilitating technology trade in this pillar. Vietnam was one of the biggest beneficiaries of foreign companies like Apple looking for alternative manufacturing platforms in the wake of increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing in recent years. 

Second, Vietnam and the United States view security in the South China Sea as a top priority. As Hanoi seeks to modernize its military by 2030 and diversify away from dependence on Russian equipment, Washington could help provide Vietnam the technology to protect its sovereignty (including through defense trade) and boost its awareness of what China and others are doing in the disputed sea. The United States is interested in stepping up joint exercises between coast guard and “gray hull” vessels, something Vietnam has been somewhat reluctant to engage in. 

Third, the two countries could step up cooperation to tackle climate change with a focus on environmental protection in the fertile Mekong Delta, which is under serious threat from upstream dams on the river, some of which have been built by China. They could also work to reduce emissions, promote renewable energy sources, and develop smart agriculture techniques.

Fourth, Hanoi and Washington, which hold multiple annual dialogues on a raft of topics, might consider combining these into one high-level strategic and defense dialogue that would include security cooperation, investment and trade relations, human rights and climate change. They could explore adding the difficult issues of cybersecurity and law enforcement even though the two governments have different views on how much state control they should have over their populations.

Considering the political calendars in the United States and Vietnam, 2023 is the best year to invite the party chief. Next year will see elections dominate the political landscape and 2025 could see jockeying ahead of the next party congress in Vietnam at the beginning of 2026.

Murray Hiebert is a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program