Seeking closer ties
Nguyen Phu Trong is making the three-day US visit, beginning on July 7, to improve relations between the two nations. Economic cooperation between the two countries and regional security issues are expected to be on top of the agenda. Both nations are among 12 negotiating a multilateral free trade pact - the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Economic engagement is seen by both Hanoi and Washington as the "basis and engine" for bilateral ties, as US President Barack Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang declared after signing a "comprehensive partnership" agreement in 2013.
The TPP deal would form the centerpiece of this partnership. It involves 12 Pacific Rim nations - Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam - which account for 40 percent of the global economic output and 26 percent of world trade. China is currently not party to the negotiations.
The far-reaching deal aims to dismantle tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade and investment between the participating countries. It also foresees streamlining regulations, and the implementation of common standards for the protection of foreign investment and intellectual property, among other things.
However, trade talks have faced a litany of issues. Vietnam and the US, for instance, have significant disagreements over high US standards for the protection of intellectual property as well as provisions aimed at environmental protection and labor rights, just to name a few
But Vietnam is determined to resolve theese issues and push ahead with the talks, not least because of the enormous gains the Southeast Asian nation's economy is expected to realize on the back of the deal. "Vietnam would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the TPP," wrote analysts at the US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in a report.
Peter Petri, an economist at Massachusetts' Brandeis University, estimates Vietnamese exports to jump by as much as 30 percent to over 270 billion euros, upon completion of the TPP agreement. At the same time, foreign direct investment (FDI) is projected to climb two percent, and the country hopes to integrate much closer into the global economy.
"It's important for Vietnam to be part of a trading system whose rules are written by the US and not by China," said Erwin Schweisshelm of the German NGO Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Hanoi. Vietnam is increasingly wary of China's growing economic clout in the region, he added.
The biggest problem afflicting the trade talks is the issue of human rights in Vietnam, particularly those concerning a lack of freedom of the press and expression. Members of US Congress directly involved in the TPP negotiations insist on concrete improvement in these areas before they give their green light to the TPP.
Furthermore, Washington wants Hanoi to ratify the convention of the International Labor Organization (ILO), in particular the rights guaranteeing freedom of association and collective bargaining. But the key question is how the convention could be translated into concrete laws in Vietnam. "In this regard, tough negotiations are still ongoing," Schweisshelm told DW. The expert, however, noted that the country has no other choice but to amend its labor code.
He points to the move by the country's internal affairs ministry, which finally submitted a draft reform proposal to parliament. The proposed reforms allow freedom of assembly. "Vietnam wants to show the US that it is willing to allow the formation of unions and associations outside the state-controlled union," said Schweisshelm. Trade unions in the country have so far been subjected to the control of Vietnam's Communist Party.
According to the CSIS report, the human rights issue is also a big obstacle when it comes to expanding security cooperation between the two countries, despite their converging strategic and geopolitical interests.
But Washington and Hanoi are unlikely to elevate their comprehensive partnership into a strategic one, wrote analyst Hai Hong Nguyen in the CSIS-run CogitAsia blog. He stressed that converging strategic and economic interests are not the sole criteria the US takes into account when forming strategic partnerships. A lot of emphasis is also placed on shared values, including democracy, the analyst noted.
This focus on democratic principles could represent a step too far for Vietnam. Even in 2013, when the comprehensive partnership was signed, Hanoi stressed that national sovereignty and the different forms of political systems should be respected.
Despite the differences, Vietnam is a country of huge strategic importance for Washington, said Schweisshelm. Since Obama's announcement of a US "pivot" to Asia aimed at countering China's growing regional clout, the US administration has been seeking new allies in addition to traditional partners such as Japan and the Philippines.
Although Hanoi has welcomed Washington's engagement in Asia, it wants to retain its independence in shaping its foreign policy. The authors of the CSIS report note that US officials are aware of the limitations in terms of how close bilateral relations could get. They point out that Vietnam wants to safeguard its foreign policy independence and does not intend to enter into a formal military alliance with another nation.
Moreover, some sections of the Vietnamese leadership call for a cautious approach when dealing with the US, as they believe it is not in Vietnam's interest in the long run. Analyst Schweisshelm points out that Communist Party chief Trong is part of the power bloc in the party that is more oriented towards China, and has historically had reservations about close ties with the US. "This group is skeptical about the US' ability to come to Vietnam's rescue in case of an emergency."
During his trip to the US, Trong could therefore seek a host of assurances from President Obama, the expert said. Nevertheless, even in the absence of any substantial progress on the strategic front, the trip offers a chance for resolving contentious issues holding back bilateral economic cooperation, Schwesshelm said. And, in so doing, it may further strengthen the foundation of US-Vietnamese relations.