On August 28, the White House announced that President Joe Biden will be visiting Vietnam on 10-11 September. The spokesperson for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately confirmed the visit, which she emphasized came at the invitation of Nguyen Phu Trong, the general-secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).
According to the statement, President Biden “will meet with General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and other key leaders to discuss ways to further deepen cooperation.” Though it was not mentioned in the statement, it is expected that Biden and Trong will officially announce the long-expected upgrade of bilateral ties to a “strategic partnership,” or if some reports are to be believed, even a “comprehensive strategic partnership” – the top tier in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy.
Biden’s visit to Vietnam was planned by both sides back in 2021, but became more likely after a “successful” telephone call between him and Trong in March, followed by the visits of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Hanoi in April and Chairperson of the CPV Central Committee’s Commission for External Affairs Le Hoai Trung to Washington in June. Talks over the last few months have focused on whether Biden or Trong would go to the other’s capital first. The issue has now apparently been settled.
There are five reasons why Biden’s one-and-a-half-day visit to Hanoi represents a triumph for the president and his administration.
First, while Vietnam’s CPV-ruled political regime establishes Trong as the highest leader of the state, he occupies just one of the four most powerful positions, popularly referred to as the “four pillars,” which also include the state president, prime minister, and chairperson of the national assembly. In theory, power is equally shared by these four leaders. Therefore, for Biden to have meetings with the “four pillars” in Hanoi would implicitly signify the importance of the visit for the CPV. We already know that Biden will be welcomed by President Vo Van Thuong and National Assembly Chairperson Vuong Dinh Hue, who are potential candidates to replace Trong at the 14th Congress in 2025. In addition to reflecting the importance of the visit for the CPV, a meeting with these two candidates for the party’s top position will help Biden build a personal relationship with them over the next five years should he win the election for a second term next year.
Second, the two-term Obama administration from 2008 to 2016 has left three of the most significant milestones in U.S.-Vietnam relations thus far. The first milestone was the elevation of bilateral ties to the level of a comprehensive partnership on the occasion of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington in 2013. The second was the invitation of Trong to the White House in 2015, the first CPV chief to be accorded the privilege. As vice president, Biden had a chance to develop a personal relationship with Trong when he chaired a luncheon for this guest. The third milestone is the full lifting of the ban on arms sales to Vietnam, marking a full normalization of diplomatic relations between the two former enemies. Obama announced the removal of the ban on his three-day visit to Vietnam in May 2016.
As president, Biden now has the opportunity to carve his name into the history of U.S-Vietnam relations by once again upgrading bilateral ties to a strategic or comprehensive strategic partnership. He is set to join Bill Clinton and Obama as two former Democratic presidents who have made breakthroughs in America’s relations with Vietnam.
Third, visiting Vietnam immediately after attending the G-20 Summit in India is a smart decision from a strategic perspective. For the president, who is 81, a trans-Indo-Pacific flight from the East to the West and a stop off at the center of the region for an official visit to one of the nations identified as among the most important partners of the U.S. in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy sends a clear message that the U.S remains committed to associating its interests to the region, including Southeast Asia. This is significant given the concerns that were expressed about the U.S. commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after it was confirmed that Biden would not attend this week’s ASEAN summits in Jakarta.
Fourth, the U.S. and Vietnam are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive partnership, a remarkable milestone in the bilateral ties that recognizes Biden’s contributions in his role as vice-president at the time. This year is not the only reason why this year is an appropriate time for the two countries to upgrade their relations. Next year, both Biden and Trong will be fully occupied by domestic politics. The president will be engaged in his re-election campaign, and Trong, as CPV chief, will be busy preparing for the party’s 14th National Congress, which is expected to be held in 2025. In particular, he will be tasked with deciding who should succeed him as general secretary. Given the fragile state of Trong’s health, which prompted him to cancel his planned visit to Washington in 2019, it also makes sense to upgrade relations this year rather than wait.
Consequently, without a visit from either direction between now and the end of this year, it is unlikely that there would be a visit until the two countries have a new leadership in place in 2025. It would indeed be regrettable if the two nations missed the opportunity to lift their relations to a strategic level given the current “good timing” (thiên thời), “good conditions,” (địa lợi), and “good synergy” (nhân hòa), to quote a popular Vietnamese saying.
Finally, the fact that the upgrade in relations will be announced in Hanoi will be strategically significant. The president’s visit will draw enormous attention from the public and media in Vietnam, the U.S., and the region as compared with a visit by Trong to Washington. When he is in Hanoi, Biden’s image will be deeply imprinted in the minds of the Vietnamese as that of his predecessors. Moreover, it is an excellent gesture from the U.S. to allow the diplomatic upgrade to be made in Hanoi, given that the comprehensive partnership was announced in Washington.
The only thing that could improve the situation is if Biden could spend a bit longer in Hanoi, where he might take a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake and even drop in a street-side restaurant to enjoy the local tastes, as Obama did seven years ago. Nevertheless, his visit to Hanoi already figures as a historic and triumphant moment for U.S.-Vietnam relations.