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Obama to Meet Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief

FILE - Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong .
FILE - Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong .

The head of Vietnam’s Communist Party meets President Obama at the White House Tuesday, the first General Secretary of the country’s Communist Party to do so as part of a weeklong U.S. visit. The visit, coming on the 40th anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal and the Communist takeover of Vietnam, is expected to focus on developing closer economic and security ties, as well as promoting human rights.

The 71-year-old party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, who holds no official government post, calls his U.S. visit and meeting at the White House “historic” and he hopes to build trust with Washington 20 years after bilateral relations were normalized. Trong is expected to discuss the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact, bilateral defense cooperation, South China Sea tensions and human rights. The U.S. arms embargo may also come up.

In written answers to questions posed by Bloomberg News, Trong said he sees the relationship “as one of the most important… in our foreign policy.” He expressed hope “this is a chance for our two sides to have an open and frank discussion on issues where differences still exist.” He said that would enhance mutual understanding, narrow differences and gradually build up trust and “add more substance and efficiency to long-term relations.

Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer said that with the U.S. re-balance toward the Asia-Pacific region, the two countries are slowly reaching a convergence of strategic interests and Hanoi has pressed for such a meeting to give recognition to the Communist Party chief.

“So, it’s the United States showing respect and that builds up, I think, trust between the two countries in doing that,” said Thayer.

He said the significance of the meeting is to clarify the direction of a 2013 Comprehensive Partnership reached when Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited the White House in 2013.

Human rights, TPP

Thayer said the major topics of discussion are inter-related and cites human rights and the TPP as an example.

“If Vietnam signs on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership it has to agree to more independent labor unions, which Vietnam doesn’t have, and greater transparency. So, Vietnam does what they always do -- release a couple of high-profile dissidents in advance of this meeting to earn some goodwill. Nonetheless, they will continue to arrest people, particularly in the political season as they move up to their party congress [in 2016],” said Thayer.

Thayer said Vietnam has a massive trade surplus with the United States and a large trade deficit with China and it needs access to the U.S. market and the 40 percent of the global market the TPP represents. Bilateral trade has blossomed from less than $500 million in 1995 to $35 billion last year

South China Sea, arms embargo

He added that the two countries are in agreement when it comes to China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, insisting that a more assertive China should obey international law and not use force. China placed an oil rig in waters near the contested Paracel Islands last year triggering clashes of boats and sparking anti-China riots in Vietnam. Tensions have also risen over China’s construction of artificial reefs in the South China Sea.

Thayer said Trong may also press the United States to end its arms embargo of his country, a case that Vietnamese officials tried to make when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the country in June.

“That’s always been a political call from the very beginning. Vietnam feels itself discriminated against. But, in the joint vision statement Secretary Carter signed with his Vietnamese counterpart, the only new element was to increase defense trade, and then there was a qualification subject to the laws of each country meaning American restrictions on them,” said Thayer.

He said it is unlikely Vietnam wants heavy or offensive weaponry, but wants to move beyond U.S.-built boats for its coast guard to include equipment like radar to improve communications and to better network their weapons systems.

Thayer pointed out Vietnam has preferred a multilateral approach in its relations with big powers like China, the United States, Russia and India without being drawn into anyone’s orbit. But, he added, this trip appears to signal it has lost some confidence with neighboring China over maritime tensions and is prepared to move close to the United States.