For several years now, the United States and Vietnam have been moving closer to a strategic entente grounded in mutual apprehension of China’s ambitions. Many in Beijing claim that the United States seeks to turn Vietnam against China. But that view has got the causal arrow backward: It is precisely China’s quest for hegemony over the South China Sea that keeps encouraging the United States and Vietnam to restore their patchy relations.

One sign that the United States and Vietnam are serious about strengthening their ties is President Barack Obama’s agreement to meet General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party, in Washington in early July. It’s a very rare thing for a mere party leader to have face time in the Oval Office, but there are several reasons why Trong merits Obama’s attention. Most importantly, the general secretary, who had personally asked for this meeting, has long harbored doubts about U.S. intentions toward Hanoi. And this apprehension, also reflected among his factional allies within the Communist Party, is the last obstacle to a quasi-alliance between Vietnam and its foe of 40-odd years ago.

Those doubts are rooted in Trong’s ideological leanings as an expert in Marxism–Leninism, which disposes him to be wary of democratic nations and their motives and has led him to suspect Washington of having bad intentions toward the Hanoi regime. Over the years, Trong and his allies have promoted an image of the United States as evil and inattentive to Hanoi’s needs. Even though—given the factional cleavage behind the Vietnamese party’s facade of unity—it’s the progressives (relatively speaking) aligned with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung who seem to have the better answers to Vietnam’s problems, Trong and other conservatives still command the ruling party’s institutions. They can therefore frustrate reform initiatives that they don’t like. They are also the custodians of the negative narrative against the United States.

Vietnam's Communist Party's General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong walks past the guard of honour, December 20, 2014.
Kham / Reuters

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, that narrative still governs party doctrine. Officers of Vietnam’s internal security agencies can hardly string together a paragraph about the United States that doesn’t include references to “foiling the plots of the enemy” against the people’s socialist government. Party media frequently warn against the “peaceful change scenario,” the notion that Vietnamese civil society organizations (particularly those supported by Washington) are subversive and will trigger upheavals like the ones that overturned communism in Eastern Europe.

In this regard, Trong and his allies are out of step with their countrymen and even many party members. Vietnam’s citizens would rather see their nation aligned with the United States than with China. In the six years since Beijing began nibbling its way toward hegemony over the South China Sea—the same expanse that Vietnamese doggedly refer to as “our East Sea”—many of the party’s three million-plus members have also concluded that China is again, as often was the case throughout Vietnam’s relations with its northern neighbor, an existential threat.

To Trong and his allies, avoiding entanglement with China’s rivals while engaging Chinese counterparts at all levels of the government and ruling party structures has been the best way to placate Beijing. Their view is that U.S. interest in East Asia waxes and wanes depending on what else is preoccupying Washington, but “China is always there,” an uncomfortably large presence on Vietnam’s border.

By addressing Vietnam’s real concerns, Obama may persuade Trong (and by extension, his factional allies) to believe that th­­e Americans can be reliable partners with compatible interests. Making nice with the Hanoi regime’s conservative faction could cement a path to the U.S.–Vietnam entente that has so far proven elusive.

That strategy has become an increasingly tough sell since Beijing laid claim to well over a million square miles of open sea, waters stretching south from the China coast almost to Singapore. Every dry season since 2009, China has backed its claim by flexing its military and paramilitary muscle in the South China Sea. When the annual monsoons come, however, China has shifted to talk mode.

Though Vietnamese party leaders regularly travel to Beijing, hoping to repair the “special bond” and “forge deeper understanding,” China’s behavior in recent years has caused even Trong and his ideological allies to lose heart. Reportedly, they were stunned by China’s deployment last year of a deep sea oil rig into waters that are properly Vietnam’s by any reasonable reading of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea. Not long afterward, Trong quietly let it be known that he wished to visit Washington. 

Another party conservative, Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang, was in Washington in March, reportedly to prepare for Trong’s pending visit and polish his own foreign policy credentials ahead of the Party Congress in January 2016.

Then, in early June, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his Vietnamese counterpart signed an agreement in Hanoi that will make it easier for Vietnam to navigate U.S. regulations on the procurement of military hardware. Given that it followed closely after the annual Shangri La conclave of Asian security chiefs, Carter’s brief visit signaled that U.S. and Vietnamese interests in the South China Sea are aligned. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter talks to Vietnam's Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh in Hanoi, June 1, 2015.
Hoang Dinh Nam / Reuters

In particular, Vietnam wants China to stop challenging its sovereignty over oilfields and tiny islands off its coasts. The United States, Carter had insisted a day earlier in Singapore, wants “rising China” to play by the rules. Neither might nor past injuries, he explained, gave Beijing rights (to impede innocent passage, for example) to lands that it had never possessed in its imperial past; nor was it in any state’s interest to dismiss the dispute resolution framework created by international law.

China has certainly noticed these visits. When it learned of Trong’s pending trip to Washington, Beijing sent an almost immediate counter invitation to Trong, which he accepted. So, for four days in early April, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for Trong and his entourage. In the official accounts of their meetings, however, there was no hint that the talks produced any substantive results. There was simply a reiteration of the now-tired formula: Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Trong promised “joint efforts to control maritime disputes and safeguard peace and stability.”

Trong’s upcoming visit to Washington may prove more substantive. With a possibly momentous Party Congress next year, Vietnamese politics are in flux. So for Washington, it’s a good time to have a cordial dialogue with Trong. By addressing Vietnam’s real concerns, Obama may persuade Trong (and by extension, his factional allies) to believe that th­­e Americans can be reliable partners with compatible interests. Making nice with the Hanoi regime’s conservative faction could cement a path to the U.S.–Vietnam entente that has so far proven elusive.

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