Next week, U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Long planned (and once deferred), Obama's trip could prove to be a milestone in a two-decade path toward reconciliation. It is conceivable that Vietnam's communist regime will sign up as a de facto ally of the United States; if that happens, credit China's ambition as the proximate cause. More likely, though, Hanoi won’t yet be ready to pay the quid pro quo of strategic intimacy with Washington—for example, giving permission to set up naval logistics facilities or allow rotational deployments at Cam Ranh Bay, or promising a meaningful loosening of restrictions on popular expression and a broad charter for civil society organizations, or even both.
The Hanoi regime is under new management. In January, after several years of internal turmoil, a party congress forced two-term Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung into retirement. Dung had campaigned for a promotion to the Communist Party's top job, general secretary, by branding himself as the reformer who could lead Vietnam to prosperity. The party's old guard saw instead an unscrupulous opportunist. It united at last around the incumbent general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong. Granted another five-year term and carte blanche to populate party and government posts with his supporters, Trong aims to now close the distance between party and government by reviving a collective leadership system.
As soon as Dung's supporters were routed, Trong and his colleagues in the Politburo (the party executive committee) also signaled that they, no less than their predecessors, would be looking to accelerate Vietnam's integration into the world economy. That includes meeting Vietnam's fairly daunting obligations under the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and keeping the door wide open to foreign investment. In this respect, party conservatives have come a long way since the 1990s, when, fearing Washington’s intentions, they dragged their heels on reestablishing relations and striking a bilateral trade agreement.
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