High Stakes for Vietnam Prime Minister’s Visit to Washington

By Jonathan D. London —

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam attends a World Economic Forum session on ASEAN infrastructure in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on May 12, 2017. Source: World Economic Forum’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The visit to Washington by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (it rhymes with book) of Vietnam on May 30-31 will occur amid levels of political tumult not seen in the United States since the Nixon administration and the closing stages of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

In the four decades since, a great deal has changed in Vietnam and in its relations with the United States, particularly in the two decades since the governments of the two countries normalized ties, and especially within the last several years. The significance of Vietnam’s relations with Washington have gained special salience in the context of China’s outsized and illegitimate claims of sovereignty in South China Sea.

Relations improved so much that, by the end of 2016, one could confidently assert that in trade and security matters, Vietnam and the United States had come to view each other as indispensable strategic partners. And then came the U.S. election. As with much of U.S. foreign policy, things today are less certain.

The Vietnamese prime minister’s visit is of great importance, not only for what it portends with respect to the development of U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations and the future prospects of Vietnam’s development, but for what it might tell us about the embattled White House’s intentions with respect to East Asia.

Within the Vietnamese political context, the trip is significant as it represents hard-fought efforts of more reform-minded elements in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to reach out to the United States. U.S. authorities would be wise to recognize this reality. While only Vietnam can determine its political path, working with Hanoi in a constructive manner will generate benefits for the future of Vietnam-U.S. relations and for the Vietnamese people.

With respect to the issues, the prime minister’s visit carries implications across three broad areas. First comes trade.

With respect to trade, the challenge is to find a path to “win win” outcomes. Like many countries, the United States is Vietnam’s largest export market. What is striking is the rapidity of growth in Vietnam’s trade with the United States and the growth of its exports in particular.

Today Vietnam exports more to the United States than any other Southeast Asian country. By the end of 2016, trade in goods (not including services) between the two countries had reached $50 billion annually, and it is projected to increase to $80 billion by 2020. Notably, exports to the U.S. account for roughly a quarter of Vietnam’s total exports.

As the American analyst Vu Quang Viet has pointed out, Vietnam’s true export surplus with the United States is overstated in these figures, for the simple but important reason that a large (though not yet determined share) of Vietnam’s exports to the U.S. and other markets are in such items as Samsung cell phones and Intel computer chips, to whose final value Vietnam-based processing adds only 5 to 8 percent. In 2016, customs data report Vietnam exported $42 billion dollars-worth of hand phones and $19 billion in computer equipment. Be that as it may, Vietnam’s trade surplus is a bright shiny figure in some quarters of the U.S. administration.

Given Trump’s disposition toward trade, one might ask why the Vietnamese would wish to even broach the matter. The answer requires a wider lens and, indeed, recognition that the United States and Vietnam have good reason to expand and diversify their trade links.

While one may debate the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Vietnamese government desires to deepen its economic ties with the United States and scores of U.S. firms desire the same. Vietnam’s relatively low costs and other features make it an attractive destination for investors. For Vietnam, U.S. investment holds the promise of boosting employment, infrastructure, and growth.

In the best of outcomes, expanded economic ties could assist Vietnam in avoiding the fate of being just another low-cost, high-pollution, labor-abusing export platform.

Might Washington do good by Vietnam in encouraging the country to move in the right direction by encouraging its government, for example, to forego its plans to construct scores of coal fired plants in favor of projects relying on less polluting technologies, drawing on U.S. technology, investment, and know-how? Or even, perhaps, to make better use of its offshore gas reserves?

A second and no-less important matter is security and, in particular, how Vietnam together with the United States and other countries can promote the realization of an East Asian maritime security environment that conforms to international law. In this area, cooperation between the two countries continues, symbolized by the recent U.S. delivery of coast guard vessels. These efforts should continue.

As much as President Donald Trump enjoys waxing optimistic about Chinese president Xi Jinping’s character, recent signs from Beijing reflect aims that run counter to U.S. interests. The Vietnamese have rightly insisted that peace can only be secured by peaceful and legal means.

Xi’s reported announcement to Philippine’s president Rodrigo Duterte that the oil in the region is “ours” speaks volumes. The United States, Vietnam, and other interested parties need to persuade Beijing to take a more sensible path. Strikingly, there is no country with which Vietnam’s security interests align more closely than with the United States. Given Trump’s penchant for arms deals, there would seem to be scope for cooperation here.

A final, less tangible, and thus easily overlooked aspect of the Vietnamese prime minister’s trip should not be neglected. This concerns Phuc’s uncertain place in Vietnam’s political and economic development and whether and to what extent he becomes a significant force in the country’s development moving forward.

In recent years, the pace of economic reforms in Vietnam has slowed. This has owed not only to habitual reticence of conservatives but equally to the calamitous rise, missteps, and misdeeds of a particular and new breed of Vietnamese political elite who have preached reform and even democracy, but have ruled on the basis of personalistic ties, opaque and irresponsible business practices, and repression. For true reformers, the result has been a “lose lose” situation that has been at once exhausting and dispiriting.

In this context, those committed to real reforms in Vietnam have come dangerously close to being crowded out. Calls for political reforms by prominent members of the Communist Party that had gained certain force in the last few years have been muffled.

Whether by coincidence or plan, the Trump administration’s announcement that it does not assign priority to human rights has been followed by an intensification in the harassment and internment of rights advocates in Vietnam.

While the Communist Party’s ideological guardians have recently called for increased dialogue with dissident voices, an atmosphere of crushing conservatism has prevailed. This, in the view of most observers, is bad news for the future of reforms in Vietnam. In this context, one might ask what good the prime minister’s trip to Washington might hold.

When the prime minister meets Trump he will formally extend an invitation to the president to visit Vietnam on the occasion of the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. The meetings will be held in Danang, a stone’s throw from the prime minister’s home town, and the site of the U.S. marines’ landing some 52 years ago.

Not known for his charisma, the prime minister is nonetheless a rare element in Vietnam’s contemporary political elite. While lacking flare and being regrettably soft-spoken with respect to the promotion of rights, he is at least a person with real reform ideas. More importantly, it is he who will listen to what Trump has to say on key issues that concern Vietnam and report back to Vietnam’s collective leadership. As such, one would hope the White House, Congress, and other leaders will speak with a clear and earnest voice and demonstrate their commitment to vigorous bilateral ties.

Only the Vietnamese can decide their future. And yet when Vietnamese citizens express hopes and worries about their country’s future, the matter of Vietnam-U.S. relations is never far from the discussion. When Vietnamese citizens express aspirations for a more pluralistic and democratic politics, a freer press, and a greater respect for human rights they have historically looked to America for direction. When Vietnamese policy makers and business leaders search for ideas, they often draw ideas from U.S. experience. When Vietnam’s growing ranks of professionals search for ways forward in the fields of education, health, and science, they learn from the United States’s successes and failures.

Looking beyond the politics of today, we observe that Vietnam and the United States have a great deal to gain from a strong relationship. In the fields of trade and defense, the two states’ interests closely align. Beyond this, Vietnamese both within and outside the country’s political establishment desire a more democratic, transparent, and rights-based social order. These are or once were, lest we forget, American ideals. At last the American and Vietnamese peoples have something to fight for together. In the interest of a strong relationship that benefits the peoples of both countries, let us hope they succeed.

Dr. Jonathan D. LondonUniversity Lecturer of Global Political Economy – Asia at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is a leading scholar of contemporary Vietnam.


18 comments for “High Stakes for Vietnam Prime Minister’s Visit to Washington

  1. Gary Price
    May 31, 2017 at 15:17

    “Strikingly, there is no country with which Vietnam’s security interests align more closely than with the United States.” – This is my takeaway statement from this article.

  2. Michael H.
    June 1, 2017 at 02:15

    In the field of trade, “America First” Trump blamed Vietnam for taking away the jobs and wealth of ordinary Americans, and called Vietnam, and other nations, as “cheaters” for contributing to the bulk of America’s trade deficit. While Obama understood the regional geopolitical consequences of China’s rising economic power, Trump’s America-First decision to withdraw the US from the TPP – even when he had no clear plan for trade relations to replace the rejected TPP – has timely benefitted Xi.

    Of course Vietnam would not distance itself from the US because of Trump’s populism. As Trump is always on the look out for anything that helps him to make some sort of claim to the American public that he “creates” American jobs , PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s “diplomatically correct” move made Trump emerges from their meeting as the “winner” with promises that Vietnam would import more products from the US, including more US arms and military equipments.

    In the field of security, the tyranny of geopolitics as a landway-to-landway waterway-to-waterway neighboring state of an ever expansionist China has forced Vietnam to engage in complex international power plays.

    One of which is Tier-1 approach China vs Russia vs the US, where Russians and the Chinese have a common foe as the US, but both have reasons to distrust each other, and at the same time the Vietnamese prefer Russians over Americans with the returning of Russians in the Far East naval base of Cam Ranh: after all, the Cam Ranh base deterred China after the 1979 Vietnamese-Chinese war. And after the returning of Russians, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels have also been allowed to dock in Cam Ranh for repairs and maintenance.

    As India, Japan, and Vietnam all gravely distrust China, Vietnam’s Tier-2 approach involves Vietnam’s increasing economic and military ties with Japan and India as its geopolitical hedge offsetting Trump’s uncertainty on foreign policy which has gained in some circles a merit praise for his “unpredictability”. And Tier-3 approach involves the loose grouping of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations with regards to the aggressive moves of China in the South China Sea.

    Perhaps Vietnam, as per John McCain, will watch Trump’s actions, not words, for one thing: the hard lesson learned by the South Vietnamese of the U.S selling out its ally with the US Seventh Fleet rejected the request for military assitance against Chinese invasion of Paracel Islands in 1974.

  3. Michael H.
    June 1, 2017 at 13:37

    How could the US lecture other countries on liberal democracy when the US under the Trump administration and the GOP is becoming a place of incivility: Republican Greg Gianforte got charged of misdemeanor assault for body-slamming a Guardian reporter asking questions about his campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, then went on and won the Montana special election ?

    How could a presidential candidate who defrauded ordinary Americans under the fake Trump University could put the interests of Americans first with his “America First” slogan ? Simply another scam to fool those 46% Americans voters who voted for him. And yet by using Trump’s campaign slogans Greg Gianforte got elected.

  4. Michael H.
    June 2, 2017 at 06:51

    Trump is emerging as a true leader of “hoax” climate change now that he’s withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord, thereby leading the two other non participating countries in the agreement: Syria and Nicaragua, which comparatively produce only a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions that the US does.

    Problem is, unlike Trump’s America , Syria and Nicaragua’s non-paricipation isn’t because they believe climate change is a “Chinese hoax” .

    In the case of war-torn Syria, it’s impossible for its government to commit to limiting Syria’s climate emissions due to a civil war. Nicaragua, on the other hand, didn’t join the Paris climate accord because it believes rich countries should pay more for climate change, as they were historically responsible for causing more damage to the environment and developing nations such as Nicaragua would be the worst hit.

    Here we go, Trump is now emerging as a true leader – not on the world scene when he was caught on camera pushing past the prime minister of Montenegro during the NATO gathering to be at the front for the group photograph – but as a true leader of an isolated nation. Just like isolated North Korea with its “true leader” Kim Jong-un who has been praised by Trump as a smart cookie.

    The longer Trump holds on to his presidency, the greater again he makes China.

  5. Michael H.
    June 3, 2017 at 00:20

    In his recent speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo” in the South China Sea. In light of the first better-late-than-never FONOP under Trump, his reassurance is simply not enough.

  6. Michael H.
    June 3, 2017 at 00:42

    While the Paris climate accord is not legally binding, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from it would only serve to undermine Mattis’s call for an international rules of law based order.

  7. Michael H.
    June 5, 2017 at 20:30

    David Rank, the Beijing embassy’s chargé d’affaires, had resigned. John Pomfret, an editor for the English-language China news aggregator SupChina, tweeted: “Rank called a town hall meeting @USEmbassyBJ to say he could not deliver a demarche to the PRC govt over US withdrawal from @ParisAgreement,”

    Rank is probably among thousands of civil servants across the Trump admin. who have been asking themselves if they should resign. There would be more resignations as the level of utter disdain for Trump and his policies become greater day by day.

  8. Michael H.
    June 5, 2017 at 20:51

    The fact that Trump failed to reaffirm the Article 5 provision in his speech addressing NATO leaders during his so-called “American First” overseas trip has resulted in an international rupture in confidence in Trump’s commitment to the 70-year-old Atlantic alliance. Therefore, Mattis tough stance against China at the Shangri-La Dialogue bears the brunt of Trump’s credibility gap.

  9. Michael H.
    June 8, 2017 at 23:15

    As a Trump surrogate who contradicted herself, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has made her a laughing stock of the diplomatic league

    Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
    The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
    11:15 AM – 6 Nov 2012

    Haley: ““What I will tell you is that the regulations from the Paris agreement were disadvantaging our companies. The jobs were not attainable as long as we had to live under those regulations. It wasn’t possible to meet the conditions under the Paris agreement. We’ve got a president who is going to watch out for the environment. The rest of the world wanted to tell us how to do it and we’re saying we will do it but under our terms.”

    Tapper: “the standards were set by the United States for the United States.”

    Haley: “No, the standards were set by President Obama,”

    Tapper: “My point is that you said the world is imposing standards on the United States. President Obama — the president of the United States at the time — set the standards.”


  10. Michael H.
    June 8, 2017 at 23:27

    In this YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zR1df55Gdx4US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley claimed that Trump “believes the climate is changing” despite the fact has Trump has claimed that climate change is a “hoax” invented by the Chinese to steal American jobs. Until nobody else but Haley comes to the rescue: “he believes pollutants are part of the equation”.

    Then came another false assertion by Haley: “Just because the U.S. got out of a club doesn’t mean we aren’t going to care about the environment”.

    One needs to look no further at Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal which proposes the following :

    – cutting the Energy Department’s energy programs by $3.1 billion;

    – cutting the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy a 69%;

    – the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a program that funds research into algae biofuels or advanced batteries facing elimination; and

    – the Office of Fossil Energy, which invests in techniques to scrub carbon dioxide from coal plants and bury it underground, facing a 85% cut to its carbon-capture efforts.

    And all those cuts come on top of Trump’s order to dismantle the Clean Power Plan.

    So here we go: serial lying is a way of governing by Trump’s America, and, therefore, how would the world be willing to deal with his admin. ?

  11. Michael H.
    June 9, 2017 at 23:33

    James Comey under oath : ‘lies, plain and simple’.

    From the fraudulent scam “Trump University”: Thousands of Trump University students file to get their money backhttp://money.cnn.com/2017/03/23/news/trump-university-settlement-claims/index.html , to the money-laundering “Trump Foundation” : How Donald Trump Shifted Kids-Cancer Charity Money Into His Business http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/how-donald-trump-shifted-kids-cancer-charity-money-into-his-business/ar-BBCfp1n , Don The Lyin’ Con is a US disgrace to the world.

  12. Michael H.
    June 10, 2017 at 10:34

    On May 30, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn wrote in a column for The Wall Street Journal:

    “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” , and then “Where our interests align, we are open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities.”

    Which means where interests diverge, the US would go alone. In light of Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accord, the above arguments are not fallacies if and only if the interest of the American people is served by Trump’s Paris decision.

    Given Trump’s impressive track record of defrauding the American people under the fraudulent scam Trump University and the money-laundering Trump Foundation, it is hard to see if McMaster and Cohn ‘s claims has any credibility in those bold words “Where our interests align”.

    In fact, their credibility align with that of Trump: Trump denies Russia’s attack on U.S. democratic process in the US 2016, let alone punish, yet McMaster and Cohn assert: “In short, those societies that share our interests will find no friend more steadfast than the United States. Those that choose to challenge our interests will encounter the firmest resolve.”

  13. Michael H.
    June 11, 2017 at 00:30

    Ben Bland of The Financial Times said doubts about Trump are driving Southeast Asia into the arms of China, and that China is putting the squeeze on countries like Singapore, who has tried to balance its relationship between both superpowers.

    Bland further said: “A resurgent China, emboldened by a U.S. retreat from the world stage under Mr Trump and Beijing’s victories in the South China Sea, is no longer willing to accept what it sees as double dealing by the likes of Singapore.”

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