US President Donald Trump (L) speaks with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong as he arrives for a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on February 27, 2019, ahead of the second US-North Korea summit. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency

In a meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, which took place just hours before his sit-down with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, on February 27, US President Donald Trump invited his Vietnamese counterpart to visit his country this year, and the latter accepted the invitation. Though they did not say when the trip would take place, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang and Vietnam’s ambassador to the US Ha Kim Ngoc said both sides were preparing for it. Thus, barring an unexpected event, Trong will travel to Washington at some point in 2019.

Trong, who has been the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) since 2011, was elected president in October 2018, succeeding Tran Dai Quang – who died a month earlier after a serious illness – thus becoming the first person to hold the two top posts since founding president and revolutionary Ho Chi Minh.

He already made history by becoming the first CPV leader to visit the US in July 2015, when he was received in the White House by Barack Obama.

He also held talks with Trump during the latter’s state visit to Vietnam in November 2017, where the US president also attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Trong’s upcoming US outing will be his third encounter with Trump in three years.

It will also be the second trip to Trump’s White House by a top Vietnamese leader. With his visit in May 2017, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the first leader from Southeast Asia and the third from Asia (after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping) to have traveled to the US to meet America’s 45th president.

Phuc, Vietnam’s second-highest-ranking official, also held talks with Trump in Hanoi in 2017 and in February this year.

No other country in Southeast Asia has had such frequent high-level exchanges with Trump’s America. For instance, the presidents of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and Indonesia, Joko Widodo, have not yet traveled to Trump’s White House, even though Thailand and the Philippines are the United States’ two traditional allies in the region, while Indonesia and the US, the world’s second- and third-biggest democracies, elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership in October 2015.

US partnership rankings

This is, in many respects, remarkable. Vietnam and the US only established a “comprehensive partnership” in July 2013. As such, officially, Vietnam is behind the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore – another long-standing US strategic partner in the region – in terms of its importance to Washington.

A key component of Hanoi’s foreign policy is non-alliance. To help the country foster and enhance its diplomatic, economic and security ties with its relevant partners, the Vietnamese government has, therefore, sought to foster a network of partnerships.

The lowest level of such a network is “comprehensive partnership.” It ranks behind its “strategic partnerships” with 16 countries – namely Russia (2001), Japan (2006), India (2007), China (2008), South Korea and Spain (2009), the United Kingdom (2010), Germany (2011), France, Indonesia, Italy, Singapore and Thailand (2013), Malaysia and the Philippines (2015) and Australia (2017).

Hanoi elevated its “strategic partnerships” with South Korea to a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 2009, with Japan to an “extensive strategic partnership” in 2014, with Russia and India to “comprehensive strategic partnerships” in 2012 and 2016 respectively, and with China to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” in 2009.

Thus, in Hanoi’s diplomatic language, China is, of course, Vietnam’s most important partner, while the US is among the least important ones, which also include Argentina, Brazil and Portugal. On paper, Vietnam’s “comprehensive partnership” with the world’s biggest economy and military is even placed behind the “comprehensive cooperative partnership” it forged with Myanmar in 2017.

But in reality, the US is Vietnam’s second-most-important partner. In many respects, it is equally important as China.

Trade policies

China remains Vietnam’s largest trading partner but the US is its biggest export market. According to its General Statistics Office (GSO), in 2018, Vietnam exported $41.9 billion worth of goods to its giant neighbor and imported $65.8 billion worth from it. In the same year, it sold $47.5 billion worth of goods to the US and bought $12.8 billion worth from it. This means it had a trade deficit of $23.9 billion with China and a surplus of $34.7 billion with the US economy last year.

While it remains to be seen whether the Communist Party leaders in Beijing will adjust their policies to make China’s trade with other countries, including the US and Vietnam, more balanced and reciprocal, it is evident that their comrades in Hanoi are responsive to Trump’s call for reducing the trade deficit.

During Trump’s state visit in 2017, Vietnam agreed to purchase $12 billion worth of American goods and services. During his second trip in February, Hanoi reached several trade deals, including agreements to buy 110 aircraft from Boeing, worth more than $21 billion. If and when these orders materialize, US-Vietnam trade will be balanced. That’s why, when meeting with Trong and Phuc, Trump said he greatly appreciated Vietnam’s efforts to balance the bilateral trade.

The Vietnamese leadership has responded positively to Trump’s America because it knows that a healthy relationship with the largest economy on Earth is vital for the country. It helps the nation of more than 90 million people to sustain its development and avoid over-dependence on China economically. In this sense, Hanoi’s effort to diversify commercial ties and forge stronger economic cooperation with the US is not only purely economic, but also strategic in nature.

Defense policies

In fact, China now features prominently in Hanoi’s foreign policy and its relationship with Washington in particular. Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea is the most decisive factor behind Vietnam’s willingness and effort to seek closer ties with the US, notably in the security and defense areas.

Jim Mattis, who resigned as US defense secretary last December, visited Vietnam in January and October last year, making Vietnam the first country in the region to be visited twice in one year by a US defense chief. Three months after the retired general’s January trip, the USS Carl Vinson, a US Navy aircraft carrier, made a landmark port call at Danang – the first such visit since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Speaking at a seminar held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on April 3, Randall Schriver, the US assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said his country hoped another aircraft carrier could visit Vietnam this year and that such port stops would become a regular feature of the relationship.

Schriver, who visited Vietnam three times in 2018, also said he hoped the US would be able to make a second coast-guard cutter available to Vietnam to enhance maritime security capabilities. In 2017, Washington transferred a Hamilton-class coast guard cutter to its former foe, and that armed ship is now very active in Vietnam’s maritime security missions. On April 1, the US also delivered six patrol boats worth $12 million to Vietnam’s Coast Guard.

In his remarks, Schriver also stressed that the United States’ defense relationship with Vietnam “is strong and represents one of the strongest pillars in our multifaceted bilateral relationship” and gave a number of reasons for this.

Chief among these is the two countries’ common interests “in promoting a rules-based order, protection of sovereignty, individual rights of countries, no matter their size” and their “shared concern that there’s a potential erosion of [such] a rules-based order – one that has allowed all nations in the Indo-Pacific to rise and prosper.”

“We share a view that for the Indo-Pacific to continue to flourish, each nation in the region must be free to determine its own course within a system of values that ensures opportunities for even the smallest countries to thrive and be free from the predations of strong countries,” he stressed.

Though he didn’t explicitly name China when making those comments, the US defense official pointedly referred to the Asian behemoth as the one behind such “potential erosion” and “predations.”

Such remarks by a US assistant defense secretary have certainly resonated well in Vietnam because the country strongly champions a rules-based order in the East Sea – Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea – and the wider region.

South China Sea

In all its joint statements with the US and its other major partners, such as India and Japan, Vietnam has always called for the settlement of disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means through the political, diplomatic and legal process on the basis of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Though they have sought to maintain good ties with China, Vietnamese leaders have been wary of Beijing’s intentions and actions in the disputed sea.

In a keynote speech in Singapore in 2016, Tran Dai Quang, Vietnam’s then president, warned against what he called a “might makes right” mindset. Quang did not mention China or any other country by name, but his remarks were aimed at Beijing’s then aggressive activities in the region and its might-makes-right approach to maritime disputes. Since then, Beijing has, by and large, continued such a posture toward its smaller southern neighbor. For instance, it has frequently harassed, attacked Vietnamese fishermen or pressured Hanoi to cease oil and gas exploration operations in the area

Overall, though certain differences still exist, especially regarding political freedoms and human rights, the strategic interests of the US and Vietnam have increasingly aligned. For the Southeast Asian nation, its ties with the US are now fundamentally strategic even though the two sides have not yet formally established a strategic partnership.

Perhaps with the exception of its relations with China, Vietnam’s partnership with the US is more strategic and important than all the other 15 strategic partnerships it has already agreed.

In many respects, it is as comprehensive, strategic and cooperative as Hanoi’s partnership with Beijing. In some key areas, such as security and defense, its relationship with the world’s biggest economy and military is probably more strategic and cooperative than its interaction with its giant neighbor.

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