“Welcome To Hanoi – The City For Peace” proclaims banners that greet visitors traveling from the Vietnamese capital’s airport into the city center. A three-tower skyscraper, in case visitors missed the street-level signs, beams the slogan from on high.
Hanoi was certainly well prepared as US President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un arrived this week to start their second attempt at Korean Peninsula peace talks on the evening of February 27.
Denuclearization and reconciliation are among the uphill ambitions of the visiting world leaders, though commentators predict a meaningful agreement on either is unlikely at the summit.
But for the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, the summit will be a win-win regardless of the outcome. In particular, the summit will further Vietnam’s ambition to be seen as a responsible international actor, unsullied by its one-party system and deplorable human rights record.
It “continues to underline our country’s growing international stature, and reflects Vietnam’s active role and contribution in international matters,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at a press conference last week.
A former battlefield adversary of the US, Vietnam has become one of Washington’s main allies. It is now a major trading partner of several Western nations, including the US and European Union. Years of enviably high economic growth, made possible by its embrace of free markets, has turned Vietnam into one of Asia’s most alluring foreign investment destinations.
By hosting the US-North Korea summit, “Vietnam will hold the international spotlight as an honest broker,” says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a US-based global policy think tank.
He adds that Vietnam is “especially keen to ensure a positive image” at the moment because, along with India, it is a candidate to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in January 2020.
Vietnam is also preparing to serve as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) for 2020, a rotating position but one that will allow it “to demonstrate strong regional leadership,” Grossman says.
Vietnamese authorities are also expected to use the summit to engage in bilateral talks with visiting officials from North Korea, with which relations haven’t improved since schisms in the communist bloc in the 1980s drove them apart.
On Wednesday (February 27) morning, Trump met with Vietnam’s president and Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, and afterwards sat down for a lunch meeting with Prime Minister Phuc. With Trong, Trump oversaw the signing a several new deals between the two nations’ airline sectors worth almost US$21 billion.
This will certainly go some way to reducing Vietnam’s high trade deficit with the US, which stood at US$34.8 billion last year and which is one of President Trump’s main bugbears. Speaking on Wednesday, Trump thanked his Vietnamese counterparts for making efforts to cut the deficit, further putting them in his good-books.
It is thought that other members of Trump’s entourage, including US Secretary of States Mike Pompeo, discussed more specific bilateral issues including security relations when he met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh on Tuesday evening.
Ties with Washington have been emboldened in recent years since Vietnam became the last Southeast Asian nation to genuinely contest China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, features of which are contested by Hanoi and Beijing.
It is common knowledge that the US government wants to increase military trade with Vietnam, which typically purchases military hardware from Russia.
Speaking anonymously before the summit to the Asia Times, a Vietnamese government official confirmed that Trong wants to agree to a date for a state visit to Washington this year. It remains unclear if this was discussed or if a decision was reached.
Trong returned to Vietnam late on Tuesday (February 26) after state visits to Laos and Cambodia. Those trips were probably scheduled long ago and, adding to Vietnam’s international image, Trong “would not want to make Laos and Cambodia feel less important. After China, these two neighbors are most important to Vietnam,” says Tuong Vu, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon.
The summit also allows Vietnam to boost its credentials in both capitals on the Korean Peninsula. Despite being a fellow nominally communist nation, relations between North Korea and Vietnam haven’t fully recovered since the 1980s, when Pyongyang sided with China against Hanoi and its Soviet Union ally during the communist-bloc’s Sino-Soviet split.
On Wednesday morning, North Korean officials visited factories of some of Vietnam’s largest firms and tourist sites, including the famous Ha Long Bay. Though Kim didn’t accompany them, there are rumors he will visit different sights in Vietnam after the summits finishes on Thursday evening.
It remains unclear if and when Kim will sit down with Vietnam’s leaders for bilateral talks since his stay in Hanoi is also being classified as a state-visit, his first ever to Vietnam.
“That feeling of [communist] solidarity runs deep, and if Hanoi can help Pyongyang to reform while remaining communist it would strengthen the whole communist family,” says Bill Hayton, associate fellow at Chatham House for the Asia Pacific region and a Vietnam expert
More important are Vietnam’s ties to South Korea, one of its main trading partners. Vietnam is now the third-largest destination for South Korean exports, after China and America, while South Korea was last year the largest foreign investor in Vietnam.
Under President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has prioritized Korean reconciliation more than previous South Korean premiers and, on occasions, on more moveable terms than American negotiators in their peace talks.
The “positive momentum” of Vietnam-South Korean relations would surely be kept going if Hanoi shows that it also a major supporter of “inter-Korean reconciliation and peace efforts,” says Grossman.
Vietnam is thought to have heavily lobbied North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and South Korean President Moon to be the host of the summit, as the negotiators also considered Thailand and Singapore, the latter the host of the first Kim-Trump summit, as alternatives. US officials who have toured Vietnamese regularly in recent years are believed to have favored Hanoi above the other options.
The summit presents commercial benefits, too. Phuc reportedly said that the summit poses a golden opportunity to boost the capital’s tourism potential. This correspondent also noticed that many of the communist propaganda banners and flags that decorate the streets have been removed, perhaps for the edification of visitors.
Vietnam has certainly paid a sizable cost for hosting the summit, as it was forced to close an entire motorway for hours so that Kim’s convey could zip from the China-Vietnam border to Hanoi upin arriving on Tuesday morning. Some Vietnamese have taken to social media to complain about how this disrupted their travel plans and local businesses.
It also happens that the summit falls on the 20th anniversary of Hanoi’s recognition by UNESCO as a “city for peace” – a coincidence that must have given Vietnam’s slogan writers a reposeful day.
All of this comes at an important time for Hanoi. It could be said that its international image hangs delicately. On the one hand, Vietnam risks being defined by the repressive actions of a dictatorial communist regime and its woeful human rights record, one of the worst in Asia.
On the other hand, events like this week’s summit – which will mark Trump’s second visit to Vietnam in as many years – could muzzle concerns about its dearth of democratic values. Its economic weight has certainly dimmed the voices of those raising concerns.
The European Union is now threatening trade sanctions on neighboring Cambodia for its political and human rights conditions – which are arguably better than Vietnam’s – but the EU is preparing to sign a new free trade deal with Vietnam this year. The US has also threatened Cambodia with sanctions yet, at the same time, is now prioritizing relations with Vietnam.
At a branch of Cong Ca Phe, a coffee chain contrived with ‘Communist Chic’ decorations, it is difficult not to see that hosting the summit is important for the Communist Party’s reputation at home, as well. Economics student Kim Ly says she is also proud her city is hosting the summit, yet like most people she doesn’t know what it will actually achieve.
“Maybe it won’t bring peace, but it’s good Trump and [Kim Jong-Un] are visiting Vietnam,” she said on Monday. Her friend, Cuong, who says he closely follows international politics, reckons that it is a great public relations victory for Vietnam’s Communist Party.
Indeed, Vietnam’s serving as summit host has sparked a form of patriotism where the Vietnamese see their country as a key and respected player in global affairs – and the Communist Party as the architect of its new place in the international order.
Many of the Hanoi residents who spoke to Asia Times said they were proud that Vietnam had been chosen to host such an important meeting.
Many spoke favorably of Vietnam’s growing importance in global affairs and praised the Communist Party for achieving that role. The more cynical, though, said they were just happy that parts of Hanoi received a preparatory makeover.