US-Vietnam still in a tentative embrace

US President Donald Trump’s trip to Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is expected to focus largely on bilateral trade and security issues

Originally published by Asia Times (November 8, 2017)

 

US President Donald Trump never fought in Vietnam due to five military deferments, a historical fact US Senator and medaled war veteran John McCain raised last week ahead of the American leader’s visit to Hanoi and Da Nang.

Trump’s first tour of Asia, the longest by any sitting US president in over 25 years, has got people talking. His most important stops will be in China, Japan and South Korea, which he will have visited before arriving in Vietnam.

While Trump’s agenda in Northeast Asia is clear with the North Korean nuclear crisis, its less so in Southeast Asia. Analysts note his participation in the Vietnam-hosted Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit will be the first major multilateral meeting he has attended.

National leader speeches at such events are typically about reaffirming their commitment to the region and articulating in general terms what their nation can offer. Trump, renowned for his active, off-the-cuff use of Twitter, is expected to stick to a tighter script when he delivers his address to the summit.

But he’s likely to go off-script in bilateral talks and meetings, for which his preference is well-known. Trump will fly to Hanoi the day after the Apec summit to meet with senior Communist Party of Vietnam leaders.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc already has a working relationship with Trump; he was the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the Trump White House in May. On the occasion, Phuc signed new contracts to boost trade with America, including the purchase of Boeing-made aircraft.

According to Phuc, the deals were worth US$17 billion; the US Commerce Department said only US$8 billion was agreed.

Whatever the value, the contracts committed Vietnam to importing more American-made goods and technology, a sign Hanoi is willing to meet Trump’s demand of reducing its large trade deficit with the US, which stood at around US$29 billion in 2016, according to Vietnam official statistics.

Trump, whose stated policy is to punish countries with large trade deficits, has already prioritized such issues on early stops in his Asia tour and is expected to drive the point in meetings in both Vietnam and the Philippines.

Last week, he described America’s trade deficit with China as “embarrassing” and “horrible.” Vietnam boasts the sixth global surplus with America, not far behind China’s worth almost US$32 billion last year. But Hanoi’s commitment to reducing it will no doubt entice Trump, who some believe is pursuing a “competitive liberalization” policy of bilateral deals.

In return, Vietnam will want America to commit to more money and effort. In the first eight months of this year, US-backed investments only accounted for US$370 million, about 5% of what Vietnam’s largest investor, South Korea, poured into the country over the same period, the Vietnam Investment Review (VIR), an industry newspaper, reported.

According to VIR, Vietnam-based American lobbying groups and executives are hopeful Trump’s visit to Da Nang will boost total trade between the two nations.

They no doubt also hope that Hanoi will pledge further economic liberalization, along the same lines Phuc promised when in the Netherlands in July. There, Phuc said Vietnam will allow foreign investors more access to sectors of the economy, including telecoms, finance and banking, that until now have been blocked.

With Vietnam’s state finances depleted and debts mounting, Communist Party leaders hope to alleviate the financial burden by promoting more private investor-led infrastructure development.

They will also be keen to discuss security issues with Trump. Since his inauguration in January, Hanoi has raised questions about whether America still backs Vietnam against Chinese militarization in the South China Sea.

Trump did provide the Vietnamese coast guard with six patrol boats and a high-caliber cutter in May. But the White House was conspicuously silent two months later when Hanoi was forced into an embarrassing stoppage of oil exploration in a contested area of the South China Sea after China made military threats.

“The Trump administration demonstrated that it either does not understand or sufficiently care about the interests of its friends and potential partners in Southeast Asia to protect them against China,” Bill Hayton, author of South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, wrote at the time.

White House aides, however, have recently articulated a new goal of building a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. While not as lissome as the “pivot to Asia”, the slogan of the previous Barack Obama administration, it stresses the same concept via an assertive American military presence in the region.

The idea, which apparently originated among Japanese defense officials, seeks to unite America with the Asia-Pacific’s three maritime powers – Japan, Australia and India – in opposing Chinese expansionism. Trump is expected to meet the leaders of all three nations during his Asia tour.

“This trip is a great opportunity to demonstrate America’s, and the Trump administration’s, commitment to the Indo-Pacific,” national security adviser, Lt Gen H R McMaster, was quoted as saying.

But regional leaders are still no doubt unsure where Trump’s true commitments lay. Trump will visit China before Vietnam, bringing along 29 business executives in the hope of persuading Beijing to further open its markets to US investors.

He is also certain to request more Chinese support in curbing North Korea’s behavior, the centerpiece of his foreign policy. There is thus some concern that Trump will sacrifice Vietnam’s interests, and the goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, for the sake of forging better relations with China.

Other potential allies of America, the so-called leader of the free world, are certain to be coldshouldered during Trump’s visit. Pro-democracy activists in Hanoi say they don’t expect him to publicly comment on the human rights situation, which has deteriorated badly in recent months.

Trump’s White House is usually silent on such matters, leaving them to the State Department. It was the latter that spoke out against the jailing of Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, better known as “Mother Mushroom,” by bestowing upon her this year’s International Women of Courage Award, an honor presented by First Lady Melania Trump.

To be sure, local pro-democracy and other civil society activists weren’t overly enamored with Obama, either. Both US presidents, one activist who requested anonymity said, are too deferential to the rights-curbing Communist Party in narrow pursuit of economic and security interests.

Obama prioritized rapprochement with Vietnam, capped by the lifting of a decades-old arms embargo. But some say the concession only emboldened the Communist Party, which yielded little in return in terms of liberalization. Obama did, however, mention human rights when speaking in Hanoi last year, which Trump will almost certainly not.

Obama’s policy on Vietnam could be aptly described as “strategic patience,” to borrow a phrase also applied to his North Korea approach. That approach believes that change in Vietnam will come slowly and through engagement, not punitive action, an opinion the Trump administration appears to share.

Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that would have compelled Vietnam to allow independent trade unions and ban child labor, would have been a big push in that direction. “It has the strongest environmental protections and the strongest anti-corruption standards of any trade agreement in history,” Obama said.

Trump withdrew the US from the trade agreement on his first day in office, effectively killing off the potential for liberalizing reforms Vietnam’s leaders would have been compelled by TPP to implement. Trump’s presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, also promised to withdraw America from the TPP if she had won.

That has left the US without its largest enticement to push Hanoi to open its economy and politics. It is still possible to use improved bilateral trade relations and geopolitical support to push forward similar liberal reforms. But it’s clear, for now, democracy and rights promotion will not be on Trump’s Vietnam agenda.

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