By Murray Hiebert & Nguyen Manh Hung —
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will be the first Southeast Asian head of government to visit the United States and meet with President Donald Trump in the White House. Phuc, who has been in his post for 13 months, will not visit the United States at the best time in U.S.-Vietnam relations. Unlike his predecessor, Trump has not shown a keen interest in Vietnam and other small countries in Asia, and has turned his back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which could help Vietnam’s economic reform and development, and lessen its over-dependence on China.
The apparent purpose of the visit is to give Phuc an opportunity to get to know Trump personally and exchange views with him on the new U.S. administration’s policies toward Vietnam, Southeast Asia, China, the South China Sea, and trade and investment with the region. So far, the Trump administration has not articulated a strategy for engaging Southeast Asia. The early Trump engagement with the region has been limited, including a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to Indonesia and telephone calls with the leaders of Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore.
Many U.S. strategists and government officials appreciate the strategic role Vietnam is playing in the emerging security structure in Asia. A May 23 press statement by the White House labeled Vietnam “one of America’s important partners in Southeast Asia,” but the president himself has made no statement indicating his firm adherence to that position.
It will be up to Phuc to convince Trump of the strategic importance of Vietnam in the larger U.S. policy toward Asia, its critical role in the creation of a multipolar security structure in the Asia Pacific in the context of China’s rise, and the convergence of strategic interests between the United States and Vietnam.
Vietnamese officials indicate that trade relations will be a major focus of the prime minister’s discussion with Trump. Vietnam wants more American investment and greater access to the U.S. market. Vietnam would want to enjoy the greater market access and other trade benefits that it would have received had the United States not withdrawn from the TPP.
Candidate Trump accused Vietnam during last year’s election campaign of “taking our jobs” and vowed to bring jobs back to America. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reaffirmed at a meeting of senior officials at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Hanoi on May 21 that the United States would not return to the TPP and that it favored bilateral trade deals.
Phuc and his team will have to convince Trump that Vietnam is not a major contributor to America’s trade-related job losses. The U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam ($32 billion) last year was a mere 9 percent of the U.S. trade deficit with China ($347 billion). Vietnamese officials will want to demonstrate that bilateral trade has served both countries well.
In earlier visits to the United States, Phuc’s predecessors scored some significant achievements. Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s historic visit in 2004 marked a new phase in Vietnam-U.S. relations, with the concept of “partnership” mentioned for the first time in the joint communique. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit in 2010 led to the creation of new political and security talks — the U.S-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue — and the participation of the United States for the first time in the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus, chaired that year by Vietnam. Phuc obviously would like to bring back a trophy of his own.
Given the current state of U.S.-Vietnam relations, it is too early to talk about the possibility of raising bilateral relations from a “comprehensive partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” However, the two leaders may arrive at some agreed principles and concrete measures to deepen and bring bilateral relations to a new level.
On the trade front, it will be important for both leaders to come up with some achievement they can tout to their political base. Vietnam will probably announce some major purchases of U.S. equipment and Vietnamese companies will likely sign some joint venture deals with U.S. partners.
But that will only make a temporary dent in Vietnam’s trade surplus. It will be important that Phuc also announces a plan to address the trade and investment barriers U.S. companies continue to face in Vietnam’s market. Trump would likely welcome a proposal by Phuc to set up a mechanism to conduct trade talks along the line of the 100-day plan that Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to Trump to boost U.S. exports and reduce the U.S. trade deficit.
Vietnam has been anxious to understand the Trump administration’s policy toward the South China Sea, where Hanoi has faced a surge in Chinese assertiveness in the past eight years. Hanoi has wondered if the United States would continue the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) near islands claimed by China. The FONOP conducted by the U.S. Navy at Mischief Reef on May 24 appears to answer that question.
The success of Phuc’s visit will depend on the preparation and advance work of his staff, but since Trump is fond of personal diplomacy and proud of his talent to make deals, success will hinge much on the ability of the Vietnamese leader to make a good impression in a face-to-face meeting with Trump.
Since Trump is besieged by problems on the domestic front and needs a diplomatic victory, anything Phuc can do to help would be welcome. On the other hand, how much he can get from Trump will make clear how much the new administration values U.S.-Vietnam relations and the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Dr. Nguyen Manh Hung is professor emeritus of government and international relations at George Mason University, and a non-resident senior associate with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.