Vietnam PM Pham Minh Chinh meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. on 12 May 2022, ahead of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit. (Photo: Vietnam Prime Minister’s Office)

PM Chinh Goes to Washington: Equal Importance of Foreign and Domestic Goals

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Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh had a successful trip to Washington, which should go some way to advance Hanoi's foreign policy goals and domestic priorities.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited the United States from 11 to 17 May, the longest overseas trip he has made since taking office in April 2021. Apart from attending the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, Chinh also had different meetings and activities to promote Vietnam-U.S. relations. The visit has burnished the prime minister’s credentials at home and abroad, providing a significant and timely boost for both bilateral ties and Chinh’s domestic agendas.

Vietnam and America have gone a long way since the normalisation of their diplomatic relations in 1995. The U.S. is Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner and its top export market, while Vietnam is the U.S.’ 10th largest goods trading partner. After a slow start, security ties between the two former enemies have gained strong momentum in recent years. Between 2017 and 2021, Washington provided Hanoi with a total of US$80 million in security assistance. Washington has also transferred two large coast guard cutters to Vietnam, and is planning for a third.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bilateral ties have faced some temporary setbacks as Washington has been disappointed with Hanoi’s equivocal stance on the invasion. U.S. officials have privately warned their Vietnamese counterparts about the potential consequences of Hanoi’s refusal to condemn Russia publicly, and possible objections from Capitol Hill against the White House’s efforts to promote ties with Vietnam. 

Nevertheless, Chinh’s visit has given Vietnam the opportunity to clarify its position on the Ukraine issue and reaffirm Hanoi’s desire to further strengthen its ties with Washington. Before Chinh’s trip, Vietnam announced that it would send Ukraine US$500,000 in humanitarian aid. Although the amount is modest, it conveyed a message about Vietnam’s sympathy with Ukraine and helped fix the misperception that Hanoi is siding with Moscow in the conflict. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bilateral ties have faced some temporary setbacks as Washington has been disappointed with Hanoi’s equivocal stance on the invasion. U.S. officials have privately warned their Vietnamese counterparts about the potential consequences of Hanoi’s refusal to condemn Russia publicly, and possible objections from Capitol Hill against the White House’s efforts to promote ties with Vietnam.

During his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on 11 May, Chinh reaffirmed ‘Vietnam’s consistent position’ to respect the United Nations Charter, principles of international law, independent sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, as well as the need to address all disputes through peaceful means without use or threat of force. The statement suggests that Vietnam’s initial position on the Ukraine war was meant to preserve its ties with Russia rather than a rejection of its foreign policy principles or an intentional move to alienate the West.

To promote bilateral ties, Chinh also met with some senior U.S. politicians, including Senate President pro tempore Patrick Leahy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen. In his meeting with Senator Leahy, Chinh proposed the establishment of a caucus of U.S. members of Congress friendly with Vietnam, a conscious effort on Vietnam’s part to mobilise U.S. bipartisan support for bilateral ties.

Chinh also used the trip to mobilise support and resources to help ramp up Vietnam’s economic recovery following two years of headwinds due to Covid-19. In 2020, Vietnam’s GDP growth slowed to 2.9 per cent. Last year, it slowed further to 2.6 per cent — the lowest since Vietnam adopted economic reforms in the late 1980s. Chinh’s leadership role in Vietnam’s vaccine diplomacy helped the country reach a high vaccination rate within six months, enabling it to open up the economy in November 2021. But difficulties remain, and Vietnam needs more reforms and resources to renew its growth momentum.

During the visit, Chinh attended a conference with American businesses hosted by the US-ASEAN Business Council and met with leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well as many American investors, including Intel, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Boeing, Blackstone, KKR and Bank of America. Chinh also had a discussion with experts at the Harvard Kennedy School about Vietnam’s sustainable economic growth and its development direction in the 21st century.

Chinh’s intention is to mobilise technological and financial resources from international financial institutions and U.S. investors, especially high-tech ones, to help revitalise the Vietnamese economy, especially in areas such as infrastructure development, economic digitalisation, high-tech supply chains and upgrading of Vietnam’s human resources.

Meanwhile, the meeting with Harvard Kennedy School experts was meant to secure collaboration from U.S. research institutions to help improve Vietnam’s governance capabilities. This is essentially an attempt to upgrade the country’s governance ‘software’ to maximise the performance of the new infrastructure ‘hardware’ and manufacturing capabilities that it expects to acquire in the future.

The prime minister might well have other political considerations in mind. As the next national congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam will be held in early 2026, the runway is rather short for Chinh to ready himself for the coming power struggle. Together with National Assembly Chair Vuong Dinh Hue, Chinh is seen as one of the two frontrunners for the Party’s general secretary position. In case his bid for the top job fails, at least Chinh would like to retain his current position. His ambition, however, will likely face significant challenges. Early indications have emerged that his rivals are already seeking to undermine his political standing. In late April, for example, authorities prosecuted Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, chairwoman of a well-connected company reportedly close with Chinh, on bid-rigging and corruption charges. 

Boosting Vietnam’s economic performance within the next three years and strengthening his economic credentials will therefore be of critical significance for Chinh’s political prospects. Compared to foreign policy goals, economic outcomes from the U.S. visit and follow-up actions to implement them will be of equal, if not greater, significance for Chinh and his supporters. Vietnam’s economy is running into significant headwinds. If Chinh’s efforts in this regard are successful, he will burnish his political prospects — and also benefit the Vietnamese economy as a whole.

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Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.