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Carlyle A. Thayer

Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra

Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party, just completed an historic five-day visit to the United States. No previous party leader has visited the U.S. before. The centrepiece of Trong’s visit was his meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office at The White House. Both leaders agreed to develop a long-term partnership on the basis of respect for each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP), just completed an historic five-day visit to the United States (July 6-10 2015). No previous party leader has visited the U.S. before.

The centrepiece of Trong’s visit was his meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office at The White House. Normally only heads of government or state are accorded this honour. The meeting between Obama and Trong was not only historic but also substantive for seven reasons.

First, both leaders agreed to develop a long-term partnership on the basis of respect for each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was an important commitment because party conservatives in Vietnam voice suspicions that the United States wants to overturn Vietnam’s socialist regime through “peaceful evolution.” Now the U.S. President is in effect recognizing the legitimacy of Vietnam’s one-party regime. There should be no further impediments for future visits by Vietnam’s party Secretary General.

Second, both leaders pledged to advance their 2013 agreement on comprehensive partnership by stepping up high-level visits and creating mechanisms to implement cooperation in nine major areas outlined in this agreement. There were three immediate outcomes. Vietnam took delivery of its first Dreamliner aircraft, PetroVietnam and Murphy Oil signed an agreement and approval was given to Harvard University to establish the Fulbright University in Vietnam.

Now the U.S. President is in effect recognizing the legitimacy of Vietnam’s one-party regime.


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Both leaders committed themselves, in cooperation with other nations, to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and to carry out reforms necessary to reach a high-standard agreement.

Third, both leaders committed themselves, in cooperation with other nations, to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and to carry out reforms necessary to reach a high-standard agreement. There are clearly several hurdles to overcome. The U.S. insists that Vietnam meets standards set by the International Labour Organisation, while Vietnam is pushing the U.S. to give it market economy status. There will be a renewed push to conclude negotiations on the TPP in late July 2015.

Fourth, both leaders pledged that Vietnam and the United States would work more closely together to contribute to peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia Pacific both bilaterally and through regional multilateral organisations such as APEC, and ASEAN-related institutions, such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit.

In the Joint Vision Statement issued by Obama and Trong both sides set out a framework for resolving territorial disputes in the South China on the basis of international law and without the threat or use of force.

Fifth, both leaders agreed to step up defence and security cooperation in maritime security, maritime domain awareness, defence trade and information sharing, and defence technology exchange. This commitment opens new areas for cooperation. Senior U.S. and Vietnamese defence officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Peacekeeping.

Sixth, both leaders directly addressed difficulties and challenges in their bilateral relations – such as human rights and market economy status - and pledged to conduct positive, frank and constructive political dialogues to reduce these differences and build trust.

Seventh, the agreements reached by President Obama and Secretary General Trong, who will both step down from office, will set the framework for the new leaders who succeed them.

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