Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will officially visit the United States and meet with President Donald Trump in the White House this week. Photo: iStock

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will officially visit the United States and meet with President Donald Trump in the White House this week. As such, he will become the first Southeast Asian leader to travel to the US and hold face-to-face talks with Mr Trump since he took office in January. This is very remarkable in many respects.

Unlike the Philippines and Thailand, the US’s regional long-standing treaty allies, Vietnam only established a “comprehensive partnership” – a relatively low level of bilateral ties – with America in 2013. The one-party communist state also radically differs from its former war foe in terms of political philosophy and systems.

What is more, the three-day visit that begins on May 29 takes place at a time when – partly due to uncertainty and anxiety caused by the Trump administration’s “America first” doctrine and partly due to huge economic promises or pressure from China – some other regional countries are pivoting from Washington to Beijing.

One of those countries is the Philippines, which was, until recently, America’s closest partner in Southeast Asia and the region’s fiercest critic of China’s South China Sea behavior. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to office last June, the archipelago is increasingly turning away from its most important ally toward its biggest maritime rival.

While the Philippines and, to some extent, Malaysia and other regional states are distancing themselves from the US and falling into China’s sphere of influence, Vietnam is adopting a more nuanced posture by trying to maintain good ties with Beijing while seeking to enhance its cooperation with Washington.

In January, when Nguyen Phu Trong, the party chief and Vietnam’s de facto leader, visited China, he was treated in the same grand manner as Duterte when the latter traveled to Beijing a few months earlier. Yet, whilst the Philippine leader publicly announced his – and, consequently, his country’s – “separation” from the US and alignment with China, Trong did not, publicly or privately, make any comment that would signal a radical shift in Hanoi’s relations with Beijing and Washington.

Around that time, the leadership in Hanoi was under pressure to rethink its posture because, with the election of Trump, who vehemently advocated a nationalist, protectionist and isolationist “America first” foreign policy, Washington’s engagement with the region and with Vietnam was in jeopardy.

However, instead of cooling or worsening its ties with the US, which markedly advanced under the Obama presidency, Vietnamese leaders tried to maintain and improve them by seeking to establish links with the Trump administration. Trump and his top advisers were receptive to these efforts.

In December, Trump, the then president-elect, spoke by phone with a few Asian leaders and one of these was Phuc. In February, America’s 45th president sent a letter to his Vietnamese counterpart, Tran Dai Quang.

Pham Binh Minh was one of the first foreign ministers from Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) to visit Washington and meet with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While in the US’s capital on April 20-21, Mr Minh, who is also Vietnam’s deputy prime minster, held talks with other key officials in the Trump administration, including National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster.

On that occasion, McMaster delivered to Minh Trump’s letter to invite Phuc to America, while Minh conveyed Quang’s invitation to Trump to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit and visit Vietnam. It has now been confirmed that Mr Trump will go to Da Nang for the summit in November.

It is clear that the Trump administration and the Vietnamese government attach a significant importance to the US-Vietnam cooperation and are willing to improve it

Judging by these past and upcoming high-level and extensive exchanges, it is clear that the Trump administration and the Vietnamese government attach a significant importance to the US-Vietnam cooperation and are willing to improve it.

An account on the Vietnamese government’s website reported that during the phone conversation with Phuc on December 14, Trump asserted his wish to cooperate with the Vietnamese government “to accelerate the relationship between the two countries.”

The White House’s statement on Phuc’s upcoming visit said the US president “looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen our bilateral relationship and deepen regional cooperation with one of America’s important partners in Southeast Asia.”

On the Vietnamese side, Hanoi is equally eager to deepen relations with Washington.

In a meeting with US ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, on March 31 – the day news of Trump’s February 23 letter to him came – Quang was quoted as stating that Vietnamese leaders “stand ready to work with President Donald Trump to sustain the pace of Vietnam-US relations.”

Phuc’s impending trip evidently confirms Hanoi’s readiness to work with the Trump White House to further Vietnam’s partnership with the US.

The two sides highly value their ties and, thus, seek to boost them because a constructive cooperation serves the interests of the two countries well. Indeed, the US and Vietnam have strong incentives to foster ties in many important areas.

One of these is trade. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a big blow for Vietnam because the export-led economy was widely tipped to be the biggest beneficiary of the pan-Pacific trade deal if it included the US, the 12-member pact’s biggest economy.

Vietnam is also listed among the 16 countries that are being investigated by the Trump administration for alleged trade abuse.

Yet, instead of reacting angrily to these moves, Vietnam has adopted a cooperative posture. In his March meeting with Osius, who also served under the Obama administration, Quang said his country “backs free trade on an equal and win-win basis.”

His remarks showed Hanoi is responsive to Trump’s concerns about trade imbalance and willing to work with his administration to make bilateral trade equal and mutually beneficial.

Vietnam has adopted such a stance because access to the US, its biggest export market, is essential for the country’s export-led economy. According to Vietnamese statistics, in 2016, bilateral trade reached $46.8 billion with Vietnam’s exports to the US worth $38.1 billion while, though its trade with China exceeded $71 billion, the 92-million-people nation’s imports from its giant neighbor were nearly $50 billion.

More importantly, compared to its commercial ties with its communist neighbor, Vietnam’s trade interactions with the US are more complementary and, thereby, more beneficial. Thus, trade will top the agenda of Phuc’s meetings with Trump and his senior aides.

Another equally important issue that will, without doubt, be discussed by the two leaders is the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

In his meeting with the American envoy in March, President Quang said, he “welcomed US stronger cooperation with regional countries to maintain freedom of navigation and aviation, support the settlement of disputes through diplomatic measures and dialogues based on international law, particularly the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Phuc will probably reiterate this message when he holds direct talks with Trump on May 31 because it is the stance that the Vietnamese government has consistently maintained and fervently advocated.

Should the Trump administration truly want the US to be more engaged with the region and play a stronger role in promoting a rules-based regional maritime order, it will welcome Hanoi’s posture.

With the Philippines’ Duterte “separating” from the US and aligning with China’s “ideological flow” and Malaysia leaning considerably toward Beijing, Vietnam is probably the only South China Sea claimant state that still has some meaningful resistance to Chinese expansionism in the hotly disputed and strategically vital waters. It is also one of the countries that call for America’s stronger commitment to the region.

Against this background, Vietnam is likely to become a very important partner of the US in Southeast Asia in the years to come if Washington and Hanoi reach major agreements concerning trade, security and other areas to upgrade their current comprehensive partnership.

Yet, as the visit also comes at a time when his young presidency is facing some serious allegations and problems, it is unsure whether Mr Trump is in a good position to achieve such breakthroughs.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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