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Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the first leader from Southeast Asia and only the third Asian (after his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, and Chinese President Xi Jinping) to visit Washington since Donald Trump became president.
During his three-day visit, from 29–31 May, he toured the UN headquarters to mark the 40th anniversary of Vietnam’s membership, and Washington where he met administration officials and Trump himself.
Phuc’s mission was to forge personal contact with Trump, who has yet to formulate any consolidated policies towards Southeast Asia, as well as the South China Sea.
Almost exactly a year ago, the bilateral relationship reached a new high, when then President Barack Obama visited Vietnam and announced the complete lifting of a US arms embargo that had been in place since the war between the two nations.
Vietnam’s relations with the US have been warming up significantly over the past few years, coinciding with China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to the Pacific’.
Trump’s victory last year, however, generated some unease in Hanoi, and Vietnamese leaders feared that the momentum achieved in bilateral relations would be lost. Vietnam figured rarely in Trump’s campaign speeches, but when it was, it was usually lumped with China, and in the same context: the alleged dumping of cheap products on the American market.
Trump’s first decision as president – withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – was a serious blow to Vietnam. Being the least developed economy of the putative twelve TPP members, Vietnam was widely believed to benefit most from this trade agreement.
Moreover, TPP offered an added bonus for Vietnamese policymakers hoping to escape Beijing’s orbit, by reducing economic dependency on Chinese trade. The Trump administration’s subsequent assertion that the ‘Pivot’ strategy was dead served only to further exacerbate Vietnam’s fears.
But Vietnam is no stranger to difficult circumstances, or to squeezing the best out of a bad situation. For a small country with limited strategic options, Vietnam has managed to increase its diplomatic weight and raised the price it could inflict on any potential aggressor.
Phuc’s visit to the US can, therefore, be seen as Vietnam’s eagerness to remain proactive in seeking an enduring and broad engagement with Washington. By seeking a continued US commitment to regional affairs, Phuc’s attempts to sell the benefits of cooperation to the Trump administration is significant.
Phuc – considered in Hanoi as a hands-on economic reformer – was a better fit for the role of an advocate to Washington than Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong or President Tran Dai Quang, a former Minister of Public Security.
And despite Hanoi’s strategic anxieties, the bilateral economic relationship with the US has been doing well. America remains Vietnam’s largest export market; however, it ranks sixth among America’s largest trade deficit partners.
Bilateral trade from January–May 2017 amounted to $16 billion, a 9.9% growth compared with the comparable period during the previous year, with US exports to Vietnam growing by 22%.
So, the imbalance in bilateral trade is being rectified, and although Vietnam had a $32 billion trade surplus with the US last year, it is nothing compared with America’s $347 billion trade deficit with China.
During his visit Phuc signed a $15–17 billion contract for the exchange of goods and services, which will focus on technology, and which Trump hailed as creating ‘more jobs for the United States and great, great equipment for Vietnam’.
Vietnam is also interested in defence cooperation, and especially in continuing with Washington’s Maritime Security Initiative. Given the changing alignments in Southeast Asia and little reliance on ASEAN, Vietnam’s strategic role is both increasingly important, but is also vulnerable.
Phuc wanted to encourage Trump to ‘Make America Great Again’ by taking an active role on the global stage. The two countries will have a further opportunity to expand their cooperation at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in November in Vietnam, which Trump has promised to attend.
Huong Le Thu is based at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia and Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.
US President Donald Trump greets Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington, DC. Courtesy of Pat Benic/UPI.