What will Nguyen Tan Dung talk to Bush about?

By Tony Le

19 June 2008

On June 17th the White House announced that next week, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will visit the U.S. on a three day trip starting on Tuesday. Dung will come to the White House to meet with President George Bush, and the two are scheduled to discuss ways to boost cooperation in education, energy, climate change and food security, among other things.

It is unclear whether China will be mentioned in the discussion between the two leaders. However, if it doesn’t, it’s another opportunity lost as far as I am concerned because in the issue of energy, the new bully on the block is none other than Beijing. The Chinese government is doing its best to secure future energy supplies by entering into close relationships with all sorts of rogue governments in both Africa and Asia. It is trying to build up its influence over the Indian Ocean in competition with India, vying for control of the East China Sea with Japan and Korea, and outright claiming nearly all of the South China Sea and the islands in it.

It is a good sign that Nguyen Tan Dung is going to the meet Bush. Most likely there will be Vietnamese Americans who want to hold protests, as they have done with other top level visits from Vietnamese leaders in the past, because they are concerned with human rights issues and other matters in Vietnam. But they’re probably not opposed to Nguyen Tan Dung visiting the U.S. itself.

And they shouldn’t. After all, heads of states have a righ to visit each other’s countries. In this case, I just hope that the Vietnamese Prime Minister takes the opportunity to discuss with Bush about what China is doing in Asia and maybe the two governments can agree to work towards a more proactive American role in the Pacific to counter against the new aspiring superpower on the block.

Vietnam doesn’t need to be the U.S.’s next best friend in Southeast Asia. However, a strategic collaboration is not such a terrible way to go. Vietnam probably knows by now that the U.S. doesn’t necessarily want to take over the country, so it can shed these once very pronounced fears from its consciousness. And there is no shame in admitting that the U.S. still has a leadership role in the Pacific, and this role needs to be reaffirmed in light of recent developments in the Chinese military agenda.

On this trip, if Dung does not forget to include the topic of the Eastern Sea and China’s aggression in the region in the topics of discussion, then we can say that the trip was worthwhile. However, if Vietnam is slow in gathering allies on its side in the face of China’s advances in the region, and the U.S. keeps slacking off in asserting its leadership role in the Pacific, then the results will be quite unfortunate not only for Vietnam and Southeast Asia, but even for the U.S. itself.


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