US President Donald Trump holds a Vietnamese flag as Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) waves a US flag upon their arrival for a meeting at the Government Office in Hanoi on February 27, 2019, Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP

As Hanoi plays host to the international spectacle of US President Donald Trump’s latest round of peace talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Vietnam is keen not to be palmed off simply with international acclaim for putting on the show.

On February 27, hours before Trump was set to meet with Kim for the first time this week, the US president and his Vietnamese counterpart oversaw the signing of three new airline deals between the two nations worth almost US$21 billion.

This could go a long way to limiting the sizable trade deficit that exists between the two countries, an imbalance that has irked Trump since he entered the White House in 2017. Vietnam has become one of Washington’s main allies in Asia in recent years, while bilateral trade has boomed to $54.3 billion last year.

At mid-day on Wednesday, Trump met with Vietnam’s state president and Communist Party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, where they oversaw a number of commercial trade deals between the two nations’ airline companies.

US manufacturer Boeing agreed to sell 200 737 MAX planes to VietJet and ten 787 Dreamliners to Bamboo Airways, two fast-growing Vietnamese airlines, at a ceremony presided over by Trump and Trong. VietJet also signed an agreement with US conglomerate General Electric for engine support on its planes.

The deals come on the back of an announcement earlier this month by the US Federal Aviation Administration that found Vietnam compliant with international aviation standards. This will allow Vietnamese carriers for the first time to fly long-haul to the US mainland.

Trump and Trong also oversaw an agreement between US-based aviation tech firm Sabre and Vietnam Airlines, the state-owned flag carrier.

US President Donald Trump (L) and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace, Hanoi,  February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency

“These deals will support more than 83,000 American jobs and provide increased safety and reliability for Vietnamese International travelers,” a senior White House official, who was not named, was quoted by Reuters as saying after the signing ceremony.

After the meeting, Trump traveled a short distance to the Office of Government Hall to hold bilateral talks and a working lunch with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Security Advisor John Bolton were also present.

Phuc was amiable in his welcoming of Trump, stating that the US is a “superpower” and congratulating Trump on America’s “economic performance.” Speaking of Trump’s meeting with Trong hours earlier, he said that the “message is that we will continue to promote bilateral cooperation, especially in trade.”

Trump responded by praising Vietnam for its economic successes and stated that he is impressed by how much Hanoi has developed, even compared to his previous trip to Vietnam last year.

Greeted by students when he arrived for the lunch, Trump was photographed clutching a Vietnamese flag and waving it before reporters while Phuc did the same with an American flag.

“I really appreciate the orders that you made today of Boeing and General Electric, and the various other [US] companies that will be selling you aircraft,” Trump said at the lunch.

“I also appreciate the fact that you are looking  at much of our military equipment; we make the best military equipment in the world by far…And I know that’s a decision you’ll make.

“And we appreciate very much that you’re reducing the trade deficit with the United States that was very substantial before I got here [the presidency] and now we’re bringing it down with great orders,” he added.

US President Donald Trump (C) waves a Vietnamese flag as Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) looks on upon his arrival for a meeting at the Government Office in Hanoi on February 27, 2019, ahead of the second US-North Korea summit. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

The US Embassy in Vietnam was unable to provide comments on Trump’s meetings.

While Trump’s talks with the two Vietnamese leaders are almost certain to be overshadowed by his meeting with North Korean ruler Kim later on February 27, they signify an important step in improving US-Vietnam relations.

Since he came into office, Trump has repeatedly threatened to punish nations that have high trade deficits with the US. America’s trade deficit with Vietnam was valued at $34.8 billion last year, a slight increase from the previous year, according to US trade figures.

Vietnam quickly saw this threat, analysts say, and began working on increasing its imports from the US. The new deals signed today, worth roughly US$21 billion, indicate a major step in addressing that gap,  something that Trump praised at his meeting with Phuc. Reducing the deficit is expected to open up the possibility of more trade deals in the future.

Equally important as any ink laid on trade deals were the exalting words Trump heaped upon Vietnam and, importantly, its ruling Communist Party.

“You’ve made tremendous progress and it’s a great thing for the world to see,” he told Phuc at their lunch meeting on February 27. “It’s an honor to be with you the second-time and we’re now friends…Congratulations to all of Vietnam.”

While Trump’s meetings with Vietnam’s two most senior Vietnamese officials was mostly symbolic  – his trip to Hanoi isn’t officially classified as a state visit – more substantive trade talks were believed to be held between other US and Vietnam officials.

On Tuesday evening, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Vietnam’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh, who is also one of five deputy prime ministers and is also considered one of Vietnamese main international negotiators.

US President Donald Trump next to a bust of late Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh at a meeting with current President Nguyen Phu Trong, Presidential Palace, Hanoi, February 27. Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP

In a Tweet posted afterwards, Pompeo described it as a “great exchange” and stated that the US and Vietnam “share a range of strategic interests and a common desire to promote peace, security, and a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

It is speculated that they talked of Vietnam’s opposition to China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea and possibly Vietnam boosting its purchases of American military hardware, something that Washington has been pushing for years.

At present, Vietnam imports most of its military hardware from Russia, its old Cold War era ally. Moscow, perhaps worried about the durability of these deals, sent Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a working visit to Vietnam between February 24-25, the day before Trump and Kim arrived.

US officials were thought to have favored Hanoi as the host site for the summit because they wanted to show Vietnam as an example of a communist nation that possesses one of the world’s fastest growing economies and is a close ally of the US that North Korea could replicate if it reforms.

Trump made this comparison overt on February 27 when he tweeted: “Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong-un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”

Meeting with Vietnamese officials later in the day, he added in a tweet: “If you look at what you’ve done in a short time, [Kim] can do it in a very, very rapid time — make North Korea into a great economic power.”

For Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, it was most likely overjoyed that Trump at no point during their meetings is thought to have mentioned its human rights record, one of the worst in Asia, nor the fact it hasn’t engaged in a democratic election since 1975.

“It’s shocking how human rights can be so easily trampled by an unscrupulous US President searching for favorable headlines in front of an exotic backdrop,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, told Asia Times. “The Vietnam government is playing Trump like a fiddle.”

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