Vietnamese President Officially US Bound
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Vietnamese President Officially US Bound

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As expected, Washington announced that President Barack Obama will host Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang at the White House on July 25.

According to a statement issued by the White House late Thursday, “The President welcomes this opportunity to discuss with President Sang how to further strengthen our partnership on regional strategic issues and enhance our cooperation with ASEAN. The President also looks forward to discussing human rights, emerging challenges such as climate change, and the importance of completing a high standard Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.”

The trip comes on the heels of President Sang’s visit to China, and reflects the extent to which Vietnam’s concern over Beijing’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea has led it to increase cooperation with the U.S., despite lingering tensions over the Vietnam War.

Since normalizing relations in the early 1990s, the two sides have steadily strengthened ties, particularly regarding trade. Since the two sides signed a trade deal in 2001, bilateral trade has grown to US$26 billion from just US$1 billion, according to Bloomberg News.

Political activity hasn’t been entirely absent before the Obama administration came into office. For example, both President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush visited Vietnam while they were in office.

Still, the Obama administration came into office pledging to deepen ties with Southeast Asia, which many observers on both sides felt the Bush administration had neglected. During Obama’s first term, for instance, the U.S. acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and appointed America’s first full time ambassador to the organization. Unlike during the Bush administration,

Secretary of States Clinton and John Kerry have always attended important regional dialogues like the ASEAN Regional Forum. President Obama himself has attended many important regional summits such as APEC in 2009 and 2009 and the East Asian Summit in 2011 and 2012.

Still, despite being in the region frequently, and traveling to many ASEAN nations, President Obama has yet to take a trip to Hanoi. Nevertheless, former Secretary of State Clinton went to Hanoi on a number of occasions during her time as America’s top diplomat, albeit Kerry reportedly forwent a visit to Vietnam last month in order to focus on Syria. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also visited Vietnam while heading the Pentagon, and raised eyebrows by visiting a former U.S. military base.

These senior level exchanges have continued up to the present. Just last month, Senior Lieutenant General Do Ba Ty, Vietnam’s general chief of staff, visited the Pentagon where he held talks with his counterpart, General Martin Dempsey. 

The United States continues to express a willingness to help countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan balance against China’s growing assertiveness in nearby waters. During a Thursday meeting with Chinese officials who were in town as part of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Obama “urged China to manage its maritime disputes with its neighbors peacefully, without the use of intimidation or coercion,” according to a statement released by the White House, the Associated Press reported.

Despite America’s reengagement in the region since Obama has come to office, Vietnam is not relying solely on the U.S. and ASEAN to help it balance against China. For instance, it has actively sought to court India through joint energy exploration in the South China Sea. Just this week Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh was in Delhi to meet with his counterpart, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. During their meeting, Minh asserted that India had a right to engage in energy exploration in the disputed waters because they are in Hanoi’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Hanoi has also been deepening ties with Japan, which has its own sovereignty dispute over islands in the East China Sea. Vietnam was one of the three ASEAN nations Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited back in January during his first trip overseas after reassuming the premiership.

On Wednesday Japan and Vietnam once again pledged to boost defense ties, following a similar pledge made in April during a visit to Tokyo by Vietnam’s Defense Minister. During a three-day visit to Vietnam late last month, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Toshimitsu Motegi also vowed to boost economic cooperation with Hanoi.  The two countries have named 2013 the Vietnam-Japan Friendship Year.

Finally, Vietnam has also continued and strengthened its long-standing defense ties with Russia. In 2009 Moscow and Hanoi inked a US$3.2 billion deal for six submarines, which at the time was the largest naval export deal in Russian history. As The Diplomat previously reported, Vietnam is scheduled to begin receiving the first of these Kilo-class submarines in 2013. Vietnamese and Russian news outlets reported this week that two of these submarines will be delivered to Hanoi in September.

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