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